Because of illegal drug use, the the Giant Eagle on Cedar Avenue in Pittsburgh decided to close its restroom to the public – but white people still can gain access (Getty Images).
Because I teach constitutional law, white friends of mine sometimes ask me how structural racism could still exist in America.
These are good people. They seem genuinely mystified. They are aware of all the efforts going on to promote racial diversity in many of America’s leading institutions. They see police reforms. They see hiring decisions. They see other changes.
Yet, on all measures of American social welfare, racial differences remain pronounced. Life expectancy for whites is 3.6 years longer than for Black people. A typical white family has almost 10 times the wealth of the average Black household. The incarceration rate for Black people is five times that of whites.
How can that be?
When I answer questions such as those, I emphasize large-scale impediments to improvements in equality—poorly performing schools, high crime rates, the decline of social welfare spending, the absence of middle-class entry-level jobs, and so forth.
But I wonder if I should not talk, instead, about smaller, less obvious influences, like the closed bathroom at our neighborhood Giant Eagle. That story tells all we need to know about the persistence of structural racism in America.
I live on the Northside in Pittsburgh, in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood. The area contains a fair number of wealthy white households, a substantial Black middle class and a large concentration of working-class households, Black and white.
It is a predominantly Black neighborhood.
Pittsburgh is blessed with many advantages: better than average public schools, good public transportation, a low crime rate and healthy community relations with the police.
But Pittsburgh does share in some of the scourges that affect all American urban centers, in particular the widespread use of illegal drugs, which is what led the Giant Eagle on Cedar Avenue to close its restroom to the public.
This Giant Eagle is our neighborhood grocery store. It is well-run, well-stocked and safe. Although only a few blocks away from last week’s horrific shooting at a late night party, which left two minors dead, there is security in and around the store and shoppers do not have to worry about crime.
Unfortunately, the store is located across the street from one of Pittsburgh’s most notorious illegal drug market places—a grassy field behind a housing development and next to a public swimming pool.
For years, drug users have entered the bathroom at the Giant Eagle to take their drugs. And for years, the store has tried to counter these visits, recently by use of a strange reddish light that made it hard to see and gave you the impression you had just entered a 1980s discotheque when you were in the bathroom.
Finally, a few months ago, management gave up and closed the bathroom to the public.
This is how structural racism works. There are no suburban Giant Eagles that I know of without a public restroom. If there were a problem in one of those stores, Giant Eagle would solve it. Giant Eagle would not risk offending a clientele like that by closing a store’s bathroom.
But in the case of an inner-city store, with lower income, predominantly African-American customers, who have fewer options for grocery shopping, Giant Eagle felt no such compunction.
I was outraged by this decision at the time and called the store to complain. I don’t know the name of the person I spoke with, but I pointed out the unconscious racism that this decision manifested. I listed the many, obvious ways the drug problem could be dealt with, including just putting a lock on the bathroom with a daily changed combination, which is what some downtown fast-food restaurants do.
I expected the decision to be reversed. I was mistaken.
The representative of the store was not in the least embarrassed by my accusation of racism. In fact, he told me, thus adding insult to injury, that of course if I needed to use the bathroom, to just come to the front of the store and they would open it up for me.
When I called again recently, to see if anything had changed, I was told the decision to close the bathroom was made at the highest corporate level and not by the store manager.
What message does it send to Black children to see an important, hometown company like Giant Eagle—“proud sponsor of the Pittsburgh Pirates”—treating an African-American neighborhood this way? How could children avoid feeling that their community is less important to Giant Eagle than are white neighborhoods?
And what does it say about corporate America that Giant Eagle is unwilling to make even the modest investment it would take to run an inner-city Giant Eagle the way it runs the rest of its stores?
Structural racism does not require evil people dressed in white robes to be effective. No dramatic violence is needed.
It operates quietly, but relentlessly. It never stops.
Slight by slight, insult by insult, the unmistakable message is delivered: You are less than we. We will never consider you to be an equal and a neighbor.
This is the story I will tell my white friends the next time they ask me what impediments there could possibly still be to racial progress in America.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here. His latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Duquesne University Law School.
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