The Toxic Recipe of American Inequity

Yesterday’s virtual town hall discussed systemic racism, capitalism and the history of inequity and social justice in the latest series of This is Not “Normal”: Allyship and Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19.

“Our system has never been of equity,” said Pitt’s Gabby Yearwood, referring to the formation of the U.S.  government by White male land owners. “It was designed for them and not others—intentionally—to protect those most elite.”

Yearwood, a lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Anthropology, made the remarks at “Toxic Recipe: The Historical Ingredients of American Inequity,” hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) in partnership with the Office of Health Sciences Diversity.

Yearwood was joined by Mario Browne, director of the Office of Health Sciences Diversity; Kristin Kanthak, associate professor in the Department of Political Science; Majestic Lane, deputy chief of staff and chief equity officer of the City of Pittsburgh; Michelle Reid-Vazquez, associate professor and director of the Afro-Latin Studies Initiative in Pitt’s Department of Africana Studies; and moderator Cheryl Ruffin, institution equity manager in ODI.

Watch the recording of the talk above, or read the highlights below. Readers who missed the previous town hall events can catch recaps here.

‘Designed to do what it’s doing’

Reid-Vazquez explored of the history of slavery and racism in the Americas, including the U.S., Brazil and Colombia. “The history of the African diaspora in the Americas is intertwined with the history of inequity. The processes of European colonization were predicated on the racial enslavement and subordination of Africans as well as indigenous populations from the early 15th through the late 19th century,” she said.

She tied the history of enslavement to current events: Equally painful as the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, is the intensification of police brutality, citing the death of George Floyd and many others that prompted an international outcry. “The global response underscored the meaning of Black Lives Matter—Las Vidas Negras Importan—and linked the inequalities of the past to the systemic racism of the present.”

Lane agreed with Yearwood about the systemic roots of racism, which he called “the gift that keeps on taking.”

“The system is designed to do what it’s doing, which is to confer privilege or prohibit it ... we have to see the systems and individuals can engage in it, but we have to function in systems to break apart the toxic recipe and stop putting that into the system.”

What equity means—and how to get there

In the question and answer session after the panel, a participant asked if the panelists could talk about what equity looks like “and how we might get there in the city of Pittsburgh.”

“What equity means is when you can’t use race, gender, orientation or neighborhood as a stand-in for quality of life,” Lane said. “For example, if you say that ‘Majestic is a 43-year-old Black man,’ you shouldn’t be able to identify how long I’m going to live. You should assume that I’m going to live as long as a White person. It’s not using White people as the example, but it’s to say if these systems have conferred privilege, everyone should get the benefit of the privilege.”

Kanthank emphasized the need for White people to get involved, make purchases from Black-owned businesses and step up as allies in difficult situations. She likened the process to exercise: “You’re not doing the exercise well if it doesn’t hurt a little bit.”

A call to action

Browne added how critical it is to move reflection to actual action—as well as a plug for the University’s upcoming Diversity Forum 2020, “Advancing Social Justice: A Call to Action.” The three-day virtual event will take place July 28 to 30 and will engage and equip participants with the knowledge, skills and resources to foster a more equitable and just community at Pitt and beyond.

“If there’s one unifying message that I heard from everyone, it’s that we all play a part. We all have work to do. Within ourselves, within our spheres of influence and then in the broader world. So go forth and do good,” Browne said.