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How Racism Became a Public Health Crisis in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s city council voted to declare racism a health crisis, following precedents set by Madison and Milwaukee. Here’s what it means—and what it doesn’t.
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Keith Srakocic/AP

A week after Pittsburgh’s city council signed an ordinance declaring racism a public health crisis in late December, a fog began to develop over the city. Or at least, people on Twitter and Instagram thought it was a fog and began posting photos of the ethereal mist blanketing the city over the Christmas holidays. It was actually soot—particulate matter (PM) 2.5, the kind of lung-prickling pollution that used to coat the sky regularly in Pittsburgh’s steel-making heyday. Pittsburgh has been trying to scrub that reputation for decades, but here the stuff was hanging in the air again, the result of temperature inversions on an unusually warm winter week, trapping air pollutants close to the ground across the region. It lingered in the air all the way into the new year, forcing the Allegheny County Health Department to explain its presence:

This kind of environmental distress places a disproportionate burden on black people, but the timing for this pollution event was particularly suffocating given the racial climate in the city. Two recent reports have exposed Pittsburgh’s racial strife to the nation. One was a Columbia Journalism Review report, published in October by Thomas Jefferson University media professor Letrell Deshan Crittenden, entitled “The Pittsburgh problem: race, media and everyday life in the Steel City.” The other was a study released in September on gender and race inequality, which found Pittsburgh was statistically among the worst cities for African Americans to live in, particularly for black women.