The Pittsburgh Foundation

Time for ReckoningDisastrous events highlight the inability of communities to come to grips with racism and other discrimination.

Max King

By Maxwell King

President and CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation

The way in which the most dramatic news is reported to us now, thanks to cellphone technology and the immediacy of social media, is through digital video. In the jerky camera movements and bad lighting, we see authenticity and feel the heat of the moment.

That was the way much of the horrific news of the past week was conveyed. Two shocking, heart-breaking pieces of video stand out from the rest in jarring juxtaposition: In one, we are in a parked car in a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb with a young black man, his fiancé and her 4-year-old daughter. We watch him bleed to death after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop.

In the other video, we are on a street in downtown Dallas as police officers realize that fellow officers have been murdered or wounded, and yet they race toward the gunman. In moving protestors out of harm’s way – protestors who have just finished a march against police shootings of black men – they expose themselves to the gunman.     

Digital video and other social media portrayals of last week’s mind-boggling events abound but clarity and enlightenment are in short supply.  

This is – A week? A month? A year? I have lost count – in which disastrous events highlight the inability of communities across the country, including ours, to come to an honest reckoning on racism and other forms of discrimination. There also is a reckoning due on the impossibly high expectations we have for those we charge with policing our imperfect society. 

At our Foundation, all of us who work each day to try to build a stronger, more unified community – that’s what our mission is supposed to be – are desperate for even a sliver of enlightenment that will help us come to that reckoning in our own community. If we don’t, I fear that we will never achieve the full participation we must have, not just to thrive, but to survive as a livable city in the long run.

We see the spilled blood, the anguished cries of survivors in other cities, and yes, I admit it, we breathe a sigh of relief that it is not happening in Pittsburgh – at least, not now. But we have had our ugly moments in the national spotlight from lethal confrontations between police and young black men to the loss of many officers at once to a sniper’s gun. We could be there again.

This time, the places featured in amateur-video-gone-viral are the suburb where 32-year-old Philando Castile died in his car; Baton Rouge, where 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot multiple times by police while pinned on a sidewalk; and Dallas, where an act of crazed violence and hatred cost the lives of five police and wounded seven others along with two protesters. 

Well distant from these places where families are burying their dead and protests continue and various camps circle the wagons, other communities will be tempted to avoid hard conversations and lay low. 

That would be a terrible waste, since I believe the most effective solutions come when the pain of what has been lost is still fresh. And those solutions have to be devised locally, not nationally. That process begins with getting past the circled wagons and listening through the hurt for the good, worthy ideas that will help us make some progress. 

And the path from collecting ideas to implementing must be short. If we are to make real progress, there must be action soon. A real opportunity to do that begins this week, thanks to a regional peace summit convened Tuesday by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and U.S. Attorney David Hickton.

Public officials mixed with leaders of the region’s African American community, law enforcement professionals, foundation executives and others in The Hill House Association’s center in the city’s Hill District to begin the work.   

There will be other meetings on the path to action, and all I can offer is that philanthropy has some history of progress on these issues, and should be moved to make more progress. 

It was Pittsburgh philanthropy, for example, that enabled Fred Rogers to offer a generation of children a more inclusive view of the world around them. And in many cases, his message in appreciation of diversity and inclusivity countered the bigotry being taught in many homes.

His lesson to children who have been exposed to horrific violence, “Look for the helpers,” comforts them, and erases those lines of division and fear of the “Other.” 

In the mainstream media stories now replacing the cellphone video pieces, the helpers are everywhere – especially in Dallas. 

President Obama referred to the helpers as the unifiers in his remarks at the Memorial Service for the five officers. He related the story of protester Shetamia Taylor who was at the rally with four of her sons when the gunshots erupted. As she lunged for her youngest and covered him with her body, she was shot in the calf. A group of officers wearing only their shirt-sleeved uniforms shielded her and her son with their bodies as they moved them to safety.  

Rogers knew that in the midst of the worst acts of racial hatred and depraved violence, what is most precious to us is not so much being secure in our tribe as it is protecting our common humanity.