Pitt hosts ‘Race in America’ conference

By Gwenn Barney

Reverend John Wallace Jr. often preaches to his Homewood congregation…

Reverend John Wallace Jr. often preaches to his Homewood congregation at the Bible Center Church of God in Christ about issues pertaining to race. He has also preached on topics ranging from education and economics to public health.

Wallace, a Pitt professor of social work, will share his insights with a different crowd this Saturday. He will lead one of the 20 sessions making up the Race in America conference, which will take place from Thursday, June 3, to Sunday, June 6, on Pitt’s campus. The sessions cover seven areas: families, youth and the elderly, economics, education, criminal justice, race relations, health and mental health.

“Education is a core issue that has to be addressed if we’re going to rectify the problems that face our nation,” Wallace said, adding that he is going to use Pittsburgh Public Schools as an example during his speech. “Because of the clear relationship between education, health, wealth and so many other outcomes, education is a key issue to address.”

As a Homewood native, Wallace feels that the conference, billed on Pitt’s website as “the most solution-focused conference on race ever held,” can be used as a vehicle to discuss issues of race that specifically affect the city.

“We have the ability to influence change and make Pittsburgh the most livable city for everyone,” he said.

The major goal of the conference is for Pittsburghers and visitors alike to share racial problems they see in their individual neighborhoods and work together to find solutions to those issues, said Larry Davis, dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work. Conference organizers feel that participants in the event can then take home with them the solutions pooled at the conference and begin to put these solutions into action to improve conditions of racial disparity across the nation.

“Some people will say that the problems aren’t solved by the end of this conference,” Davis said. “But this [the conference] will push the envelope and lead us on the path to greater racial parity.”

Apart from preaching, Wallace has other experience in the field of race relations. He helped conduct a 2005 study which found that black, Hispanic and American-Indian youth are more likely than white and Asian-American youth to be sent to the principal’s office. The study also found that they are two to five times more likely to be suspended or expelled.

According to a 2007 study conducted by Pitt’s School of Social Work’s Center on Racial and Social Problems, race relations in the city of Pittsburgh are mostly healthy. The study found that only 6 percent of blacks and 4 percent of whites in Allegheny County perceived race relations as an issue in their neighborhood.

But the study revealed a different opinion regarding police behavior. It found that 87 percent of blacks and 58 percent of whites felt that, of all the racial groups in the city, blacks are treated the worst by police.

The education gap in the city between whites and minorities presented itself as another local issue that will be addressed at the conference. In Pittsburgh and many other cities, a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics have less than a high school degree than whites and Asians.

Wallace said these issues of racial disparity are rooted in larger economic issues that persist in the city. The 2007 study reported the median salary for a white household in Pittsburgh to be about $32,692 — or $10,000 more than the median salary for minority households.

“We’re not so unique as we think,” Davis said of Pittsburgh’s racial issues. “Many of the problems facing Pittsburgh are present in cities across America.”

Davis is optimistic that more than 40 of the nation’s top racial equality scholars are finding their way to campus for the conference, put on by the Center on Racial and Social Problems. In addition to the conference sessions, activities include a panel discussion and two keynote speeches. The keynote speakers are former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., Julianne Malveaux.

“To my knowledge, no one has ever tried to pull this many solution-focused scholars together,” Davis said.

Davis said that the conference is the culmination of three years of planning. He feels that Pitt is an ideal place to house the conference because its role as a university lends an air of neutrality and learning.

Nigel Smith, who graduated from the School of Social Work in June, plans to participate in the program as a recorder, taking notes on conference sessions that may be used in a future report by the Center on Racial and Social Problems.

Smith is confident that many solutions will be formulated at the conference and that he will be more informed as a result of the sessions.

“I think my eyes are going to be opened to a lot more,” he said. “I just think the opportunity to learn from an expert in the field is the opportunity to learn a lot.”