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‘Stronger Than Hate’ Means Putting in the Work

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting, Pittsburgh has declared itself “Stronger than Hate”. It’s a lofty goal, but there’s work to do to get there.

Downtown Pittsburgh from Duquesne Incline in the morning by Dllu is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Stronger Than Hate’ Means Putting in the Work


Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

By now we’ve all seen the headlines coming out of Pittsburgh in the past few weeks. This is Mr. Rogers neighborhood. The athletes and coaches of our city are loudly and proudly proclaiming our city feels like one family. And in the face of such unimaginable hatred, it is vital that such sentiments are expressed. Pittsburghers are now embracing “Stronger Than Hate,” and examples of it are circulating in the press and on social media. 

It’s been genuinely moving to watch. I now live and work in Manhattan, and while the truck attack that mowed down cyclists a year ago happened two blocks from my office, I grew up in Pittsburgh and so somehow the Tree of Life shooting hit me harder and shook me more deeply. It was 10 minutes from my parents’ house. I have friends who worshipped at Tree of Life as kids. Pittsburgh is no longer where I live, but it will always feel like the place that defined me and the place that feels like home. And seeing my city rise together in grief and love is something I will never forget. Pittsburgh is showing its best in this dark moment. It is showing everything it is capable of being.

But as a city rallies around the idea that that they are “united against hate,” it is exactly the right time to be thinking about precisely what that means. There is more going on in Pittsburgh than holding hands. Pittsburgh has the capacity to be “Stronger Than Hate,” but it is not there yet. In the neighborhood I grew up in, there is a story from the last few weeks when no one was looking that shows a very different side of Pittsburgh. And it shows that for Pittsburgh to truly live up to its current rallying cry, it has to face its own demons too.

There is a Pittsburgh that Struggles with Diversity

This fall, at a soccer match between Pittsburgh area schools Connellsville and Penn Hills, several students from the Connellsville side were accused of yelling the n-word at Penn Hills players. Important to note, both Penn Hills and Connellsville are low to middle income districts with median household incomes below $50,000, but while Penn Hills is roughly two-thirds black, Connellsville is 97% white. The local governing body requested that the Connellsville team participate in racial sensitivity training, and then matches resumed. This time, however, Connellsville teams showed up with security armed with guns.

As questions arose, Connellsville superintendent Joseph Bradley responded to the media and to Penn Hills superintendent Nancy Hines with little more than gaslighting. His comments throw an odd, nostalgic filter over the events, sanding off the edges, and removing context to make Penn Hills’ reaction seem hysterical and overly defensive.

According to Bradley, Connellsville players weren’t calling Penn Hills players the n-word, just using “racial slurs.” They attended racial sensitivity training, so all should be forgiven. Also, Bradley said, they weren’t sending the guns without permission; Penn Hills was notified that officers were coming. They just didn’t happen to ask if those officers would be armed.

Connellsville justified their actions by saying that officers were being sent to “select” away games. But they weren’t sent to any other schools—just Penn Hills. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess what the selection criteria was. 

Who Is Worthy of Protection?

At its core, this Pittsburgh story comes down to the idea that threats—even perceived, non-existent threats—from a minority community automatically warrant an aggressive response and don’t require justification. In other words: People of color are the ones who have to forgive acts of aggression. White people have to be protected against the mere potential for aggression. A white community’s fears and escalation require context and understanding. The minority community is expected to accept all actions deemed necessary by those afraid of it without question. 

I was a white kid who grew up in a diverse school knowing that among the wealthier, whiter suburbs in Pittsburgh our school had a reputation. I know the Pittsburgh that says it is “Stronger Than Hate,” but I also know this Pittsburgh. And it is this Pittsburgh that is being taught and modeled for the students at both Connellsville and Penn Hills.  

Hate Isn’t One Thing

I keep reading headlines from this past week about Pittsburgh coming together and wondering if the same folks who are condemning these attacks and proclaiming unity were sending armed guards to my school a few short weeks ago. And it’s worth thinking about that for a moment. 

Hate isn’t binary, like most things it exists on a spectrum. The actions of the shooter are so clearly repulsive it can be easy to forget that racism, anti-Semitism, and all ideologies based in discrimination and fear don’t exclusively lead to violent rampages. Maybe you pass over a resume quickly after realizing you don’t know how to pronounce the name on top. Maybe you send guns along with your students to a school your students offended, because you don’t trust those kids to not exact revenge. Those two actions feel different. And in important ways, they are. Those who commit such actions may never in a million years commit an act of violence out of such prejudices—but they are acting from that same dark place of fear drives the people who do. That link cannot be brushed under the rug if true progress is to be made beyond slogans and headlines. 

Now, after an event like this, it is the most important time to look at those small acts of discrimination and bigotry that we have all committed. “Stronger Than Hate” can’t only mean you stand against the big, loud, obvious wrongs. Hate isn’t always a fire breathing dragon kicking down the front door. Mostly it is quiet and small and hidden away. Fighting it means reflecting on your own past actions and thinking about what you can do in the future to actively make your community a more welcoming, open place.

When the Dust Settles, Which Pittsburgh Will Emerge?

The events at the Tree of Life are going to fade in the national discourse. It’s already happening. These tragedies are now simply too common for us to focus on a single one for more than a few news cycles. But Pittsburgh’s revival will continue and Pittsburghers—all of them—will continue to live in the communities that existed before and after these events. Pittsburgh is everything that people have said in the news this past week. It’s a wonderful town with a lot of pride, and it is also a place that has struggled to share its recent prosperity across diverse communities. It is a city in America in 2018. And the people who live there have a choice to make about what their city will become. 

The stories from the days after the violence—the fundraisers, the social media posts, all of it—aren’t the actions of standing up to hate. They’re the start. The gut reaction. The work of it, the actual change comes in the next months and years in a million little decisions that are made moment by moment, person by person.  

At the bottom of this well of tragedy and fear and misunderstanding, I do find hope. I hope that this slaughter forces everyone in Pittsburgh to look at their neighbors and aspire to learn from them. To grow with them. Not to reach for protection or to give in to the very human desire to close off, but to have the courage to be vulnerable. To be a part of a change that comes from a dark place to produce something better and brighter and stronger. And that is a change I hope we all get to see. 

“Look for the helpers”

When the Connellsville girls volleyball team came to Penn Hills, they came with armed guards. The Penn Hills players set out a sign of welcome and a bag of candy for Connellsville. That is what it means to break the cycle. Sometimes you have to reach out a hand without knowing what is coming back to you. And that takes courage in the face of people who have given you every reason to doubt them. But you do it anyway. Because that’s the kind of city we should all want to live in. “Stronger Than Hate” isn’t a slogan, it’s a choice. And it isn’t always the easy one.

Pittsburgh isn’t stronger than hate. Not yet. But it can be if it chooses. 

Photo by Jay Mitlo from his article “Rise Above

Joshua Phan-Gruber has had more jobs than he cares to list in this bio. He grew up in Pittsburgh and remains a Steeler and Penguin fan in his adopted New York City. Please don't ask him about Ben Roethlisberger. Josh is subscribed to more podcasts than he can keep up with and lives with his beautiful wife and also three cats who remain dedicated in their quest to pee on everything he owns.

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