Black Politics in Pittsburgh / by Alex Young

Graphic by Quaishawn Whitlock

Graphic by Quaishawn Whitlock

There's a "crack" in the old-guard political system, which presents opportunities for people to "run for office who have sat and let other people run," Kevin Carter said. Carter is in the third year of his first term on the Pittsburgh Public School Board of Directors as the Chair of the Business and Finance Committee.

Summer Lee, a current candidate for the Pennsylvania State Representative of District 34, explained during a candidate’s panel at the University of Pittsburgh that she’s running due to a "lack of representation" of black people in public office.

Aerion Abney, a candidate for Pennsylvania's District 19, spoke at the same panel about "renewing lines of accountability" to elected officials.

They are examples of the new era of politics in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, where young black people and women are entering the realm of political activism for the first time, which is causing a progressive shift in leadership.

The “climate in the Pittsburgh region as a whole is why people are ready for new leadership,” Abney said.

A sign of this is apparent with the win of Democratic Representative Conor Lamb of District 18 in March of this year. The district includes communities like Mount Lebanon and Upper St. Clair and Lamb’s win was significant because President Donald Trump won the district by more than 20 percentage points in 2016. Lamb’s race “sends a message that people are ready for some change,” Abney said.

“The region is changing. We’re striving to be more inclusive,” Rep. Austin Davis said.

The shift towards progress gives “opportunities for African Americans [to take office],” Rep. Davis said.

Rep. Austin Davis in his office in White Oak, Pa. | photograph by Alex Young

Rep. Austin Davis in his office in White Oak, Pa. | photograph by Alex Young

Before Austin Davis became the first African American to be the Pennsylvania State Representative of District 35 on January 23, 2018, there were only two black legislators in Western Pa, Rep. Ed Gainey of District 24 and Rep. Jake Wheatley of District 19.

Now, more black people take public office than ever before, but the consensus is the progress is still not enough.

The disconnect between the establishment with power and community members who face every day struggles are because “Policymakers haven’t lived it,” Lee said at the National Association of Social Workers candidate’s panel on March 19, 2018. So, they have a hard time relating to people’s plight while one “half who live like the Jetsons and the other who live like the Flintstones,” Abney continued.

It comes down to the “covert” dealings of the Grand Old Party to maintain their influence. Abney said, “They don’t want people who don’t look like them to be in [power].” The Old Guard disenfranchises people by affecting their economics and all its connections, like education, job access, and transportation. On their way out, the G.O.P. still lurks to create disadvantages for incoming minority officials.

When Nikole Nesby became Duquesne's first woman African American mayor, the former Duquesne mayor Philip Krivacek and the city manager Frank Piccolino III, two white men, transferred the township's Redevelopment Authority funds of $1.3 million to a new non-profit called the Duquesne Business Advisory Corporation (DBAC), which lists the former mayor as the organization's president.

"They effectively made her ineffective by appropriating her funds elsewhere," Bellevue, Pa. Councilman Valon Pennington said. He was Nesby's classmate in their Local Government Academy which was instruction for newly elected officials. "They economically barred her from her office," Councilman Pennington finished.

Further, Councilman Pennington became the first non-white elected official in Bellevue history this January. He mentioned he suffered personal attacks on his family when the predominantly white community members would "dig into our backgrounds" to find financial and property information he said.

Black public officials and people face racial injustice like this regularly. Councilman Pennington recalls in 2017 when the first black male mayor of Camilla, Ga. Rufus Davis was denied the keys to his office in city hall for two years by a white privileged city council in a 70% black majority community (with a majority white police force who would've thought).

Actions like these limits the building of a black political foundation across the country and in Western Pa., which limits equality and progress nonetheless.

Black people have been constantly represented by white people. Whereas white people find it more difficult to be represented by a black person.
— Kevin Carter

Summer Lee, Aerion Abney, Rep. Jake Wheatley, Mike Devine, Rep. Ed Gainey | photographs by Alex Young

But remember this is a piece of the system of oppression. People like Mayors Davis and Nesby get denied the opportunity to do jobs or gain economic advancements because of a racial prejudice.

The new hipster spot close to a Target, lux apartments, artisanal grocery chains and coffee shops are part of systematic oppression. Call it the gentrifying city development project that affects neighborhoods like Pittsburgh's East Liberty. Demolishing the Penn Plaza apartment complex in East Liberty displaced 200 residents in 2015 according to PublicSource. The 1950s development of Pittsburgh's culturally significant and excellently black lower Hill District neighborhood for the Civic Arena displaced 8,000 residents, which destroyed the historic Hill District.

They’ve “cleansed [locals] out of their own neighborhood through economics,” Abney said. "Development without displacement. How do you build place and build people at the same time?" Abney questioned.

Current officials like Rep. Austin Davis or Rep. Jake Wheatley of District 19 takes responsibility for solving issues such as these that cause disparagement.

Although public officials speak delicately about generalizing issues to specific people or groups because they strive to represent everybody.

The issues that African Americans face are issues that poor people face. They’re not just African American issues. They’re economic issues. They affect black people at a disproportionate rate, but they also affect white people.
— Rep. Austin Davis

For those affected by gentrification, Rep. Davis states they move to his Mon Valley district or Penn Hills according to the Census Tract. He focuses on improving workforce development so those facing displacement or minorities have "access to those jobs," he said.

“I fight for people who are impoverished. We have a second-class city,” Rep. Wheatley said. Yet, he recognizes the “acuteness of poverty as it relates to African American families.”

Kevin Carter with students at Sto Rox High School & Aerion Abney at Arnold's Tea | photographs by Alex Young

Carter feels a "responsibility to the people I represent not just black people," he said. "I can't be the black councilman. That can't be the only thing that I'm here for," Councilman Pennington said. The candidate to represent Pennsylvania’s District 20 Mike Devine echoes that message saying, “everyone is vulnerable in some way or another.”

As representatives of the people, “elected officials have to work together [and] put aside personal politics,” Rep. Davis said. The people of the republic need to hold elected officials accountable as we give them the opportunity to “impact people’s quality of life,” Abney said.