Pittsburgh & Diversity

Why are we so white and what does it mean?
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Recently, in my “other” job with Pittsburgh Today, we published a report on racial and ethnic diversity in the regional workforce.

Given that Pittsburgh is the whitest (86 percent) of the 15 benchmark regions we examine, it wasn’t a shock to learn that we have the lowest percentage of minority workers — 11 percent compared with the benchmark average of 25 percent.

The impetus for this study was an Allegheny Conference projection that Greater Pittsburgh will face a future need for more than 100,000 new workers just to maintain the jobs we have now. With the number of white Americans expected to decline by 10 percent in the next 40 years, the de facto conclusion is that we’ll need more people of all kinds to fill jobs.

Our report got a fair amount of attention, and afterward, Paul O’Neill, chair of Pittsburgh Today’s advisory committee, asked if I thought people would read the title of our report — “Falling Behind: The Limited Role of Minorities in the Pittsburgh Regional Workforce” — and conclude that Pittsburgh is racist. I said many probably would, but that I didn’t personally think racism was the cause of our lack of minorities.

About 20 years ago, I interviewed Don Newcombe, the fourth black ballplayer to break into the majors. He described the Pittsburgh of the early 1950s as being almost alone among U.S. cities in welcoming him.

You didn’t ever hear people yelling racial epithets at you in the park in Pittsburgh. The people and the ball team were pretty damned nice to us. In the early years, when we really needed somebody to help give us a chance to play ball on our merits and not our skin color, the Pittsburgh fans were at the top of the list, in my opinion. Maybe that might mean something to your readers, because it still means something to me.”

The workforce data can’t answer the question of whether this region is racist, but it does suggest that now, Pittsburgh is not as inclusive of minorities as most other regions. So, what’s changed since the days Newcombe described?

It was in the 1970s that Pittsburgh entered its catastrophic period, losing some 150,000 manufacturing jobs (and countless downstream jobs). Data and studies show that that upheaval wasn’t kind to African Americans, and their recovery has been painfully slow.

It was also in the ’70s that the nation’s complexion began to change dramatically. Between 1970 and 2010, the U.S. Hispanic population grew fivefold to 50 million, and Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. grew twice as fast in that period, increasing tenfold to 15 million.

My amateur assessment is that Pittsburgh missed out on these huge waves of immigration primarily for two reasons. First, not being a coastal or border city, Pittsburgh was relatively off the beaten path. Second and more important, during most of the last 45 years, when Hispanic and Asian immigration spiked to unprecedented heights, Pittsburgh was staggering through its economic depression and had few jobs to offer. We missed out on Asians and Hispanics but also immigrants from the rest of the world. As a result, Pittsburgh has the lowest percentage of foreign-​born residents — 3.8 percent — compared with the benchmark average of 8.13 percent.

So what does our future look like? Labor markets are fluid and mobile, so if Pittsburgh experiences an acute worker shortage, some of that gap likely will be filled as workers come here for jobs. But it’s also likely that we will need more people — of all sorts — to maintain equilibrium, much less grow.

The smart thing for us to do is to redouble efforts to improve the possibilities for minorities who are here, some of whom are unemployed or underemployed. We also should set to work building the conditions in which minorities and immigrants who come here will find a city that’s welcoming and attractive — and a place where they can find other people like them. In short, somewhere they’ll want to stay.

To receive future reports from Pittsburgh Today, sign up for email notifications at pitts​burghto​day​.org. The diversity report can be read online at: pitts​burghto​day​.org/​s​p​e​c​i​a​l​r​e​p​o​r​t​s​/​b​e​h​i​n​d​_​t​h​e​_​t​i​m​e​s​.​p​d​f.

Douglas Heuck

A journalistic innovator, Heuck has been writing about Pittsburgh for 25 years, as an investigative reporter and business editor at The Pittsburgh Press and Post-​Gazette and as the founder of Pittsburgh Quarterly. His newspaper projects ranged from living on the streets disguised as a homeless man to penning the only comprehensive profile in the latter years of polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to creating a statistical means of judging regional progress that has led to similar projects across the country. Heuck’s work has won numerous national, state and local writing awards. His work has been cited in the landmark media law case “Food Lion vs. ABC news.”

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