Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afia we Mwenze, now a student at Community College of Allegheny County, was sometimes categorized by virtue of her tribe, or by being Congolese, but she never thought about being “a Black person.” And growing up watching rebroadcasts of “That’s So Raven,” she thought that’s how America was too, with racism having been banished to the
“I came here at the end of junior high, and for the first time experienced racism. It wasn’t overt, but it was obvious,” she said. “My one teacher was baffled by my reading skills, and I saw students self-segregating in the lunchroom. No one told them to, they just did it. These stereotypes that I thought were gone I found embedded in society. Being ‘a Black person’ affects my life like it never did in the Congo. That’s why I’m standing here today.”
Mwenze was one of the featured speakers at the YWCA’s annual Stand Against Racism Rally, held again this year at CCAC. As they did last year, speakers from several government agencies and nonprofits partnered with the Y to reinforce the message that racism continues to plague African-Americans and other minorities in Pittsburgh and across the country.
Before introducing YWCA President Maggie Jensen, CCAC administrator and host for the rally Clyde Pickett thanked everyone who attended.
“It does my heart justice to see all the students, teachers and advocates here,” he said.
Jensen also thanked everyone, and noting that her organization is devoted to empowering women and eliminating racism, vowed to continue.
“Around 80 YWCAs across the country are joining us. In Pittsburgh, we are partnering with 20 other organizations to stand against racism,” she said. “Last year we reached more than 300,000 people and we hope to reach more because it’s important for us as a nation to acknowledge that racism does exist and must be defeated.”
Some of the featured speakers included US Attorney Shaun Sweeney, who spoke of the US Justice Department’s unique, and difficult task of prosecuting racially motivated crime; Adam Stalcyznski from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and Jillane McKinley from the Pittsburgh HRC, who told the audience that they stand ready to help with cases of illegal workplace and housing discrimination; Karen Battle from the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force who decried the double-discrimination Blacks with AIDS/HIV face; Carmen Alexander from New Voices Pittsburgh, celebrating 10 years fighting for women’s reproductive health, and Mayor Bill Peduto.
Peduto told of keeping one of his office doors open so it covers the portrait of 19th century Mayor Joe Barker, who won election as head of the Anti-Catholic Party while sitting in the Allegheny County Jail. He had the Bishop of Pittsburgh arrested and his supporters celebrated by burning down the Cathedral downtown.
“Those same feelings that elected him are still electing congressmen, state senators, councilmen and mayors across the country,” he said. “So I applaud the Y, because we must remain vigilant.”
Immediately following the mayor, Rev. John Welch of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, delivered a fiery address, calling out his fellow clergy for doing nothing in the face of continued discrimination, and Peduto for supporting the Pittsburgh Land Bank and the gentrification of Black neighborhoods.
“The Bakery Square II development—the rents there are $1,000 a month when Blacks can’t find affordable housing. That’s racist,” he said. “Homewood needs to be developed not gentrified. This will lead to a huge underclass of African- Americans.”
Lastly, poet and activist Vanessa German recounted sitting in through the trial against the police officers that beat Jordan Miles during his wrongful January 2010 arrest. One incident stuck with her occurred when one of Mile’s attorneys was fighting the introduction of an ammo clip police said they found near the scene.
In his effort to point out there was no way it was tied to his client, he reflexively said “half the people in Homewood have a Glock 9mm.”
While that was bad enough, she said, after mentioned it in a City Paper article, an anonymous online commenter responded with an astounding Stepin Fetchit-like racist screed. German could barely get through the portion she read due to the stereotypical “Black” dialect and spelling.
On the bright side, we think we’ll be able to identify the sender,” she said. “You’ll be hearing about it when we do.”
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