Present & Future: Causal Layered Analysis of Racism in Pittsburgh

Written by Team Resilience: 
Hillary Carey, Alex Klein, Nandini Nair, Yuchuan Shan
Racial Inequity in Pittsburgh, Transition Design Seminar 2020, CMU
A public art installation in East Liberty by an artist in residence program founded by Alisha B. Wormsley & Jon Rubin was eventually taken down in April of 2018 due to controversy over its provocative 7-letter phrase.

Introduction — Applying a Causal Layered Analysis

For Assignment #3 of the Transition Design (TD) Seminar, we use Sohail Inayatullah’s framework, Causal Layered Analysis, as a new frame to understand our wicked problem of racial inequity in Pittsburgh, PA. The TD instructors encourage this method because it is a way “to ‘deconstruct’ the problem” in “the way in which the problem is viewed/accepted in mainstream society as well as the deeper, less understood (or even hidden) roots of the problem (, 2020).” Here we move from the Multi-Level Perspective in Assignment #2, which helped our team to uncover the roots of the problem from a timeline point of view, to an assessment of the present day and a projection into the future of our wicked problem.

Inayatullah describes the CLA as “four levels: the litany, social causes, discourse/worldview and myth/metaphor(1998, p. 815).” He recommends building this analysis collaboratively and cross-functionally. It should act as a source of inspiration, by bringing to light perspectives on the challenge that we take for granted or miss, because they are so deeply embedded in a cultural way of seeing the issue. He writes, “The challenge is to conduct research that moves up and down these layers of analysis and thus is inclusive of different ways of knowing (ibid).”

Our analysis of racial inequity in Pittsburgh, in the present day

What we uncovered in our CLA of Present-day Inequity in Pittsburgh

“These views are primarily informed by quantitative data and disseminated via mainstream media.” (TD seminar website, 2020)



We look at the problem of structural racism and it’s resulting inequity in Pittsburgh particularly in the areas of access to housing, education, healthcare, jobs, and other forms of wealth creation. When racism is discussed at this mainstream level, it is often erroneously viewed as individual behaviors, rather than structural systems. News reports and public figures focus on the current situation and not the underlying causes. The current discourse around Corona Virus and it’s higher rates of infection and death for Black citizens is a great example. Author and historian Ibram X. Kendi recently wrote about this for the Atlantic, quoting health experts who attribute these worse health outcomes to obesity and hypertension in the black community, not the racist policies that have kept more Black residents in poverty or the horrific medical practices that lead to lower trust in the medical system (Kendi, April 4, 2020). So, in Pittsburgh, discussions of racial disparity may initially revolve around individual habits and circumstances — crime, low wage jobs, poor health, poor nutrition, and individual acts of racism. It is important to dig deeper and look at the structural causes and policy practices that have been shaping these outcomes since this country began framing African people as less-than-human and intended for enslavement. Of course these perspectives have shaped much of the institutional choices about who is given support and who is punished.

Interpretation and communication is often undertaken by policy institutes, editorial news articles and non-academic journals.” (TD seminar website, 2020)

Systemic Enablers

Pittsburgh is not unique among American cities in having racist policy decisions form the backbone of many structures. Yet the segregation of neighborhoods, schools, and jobs is some of the worst in the country. This issue has received more public attention and conversation recently because of two 2019 reports with stark findings about life for Black residents. The city conduct’s it own evaluation each year, since 2017: the Pittsburgh Equity Indicators report. Additionally, and the one that received the most attention, the University of Pittsburgh to examine directly, “Pittsburgh’s Inequality across Race and Gender.” These publications caused Pittsburgh’s city council to publicly acknowledge the health and job disparities along racial lines, declaring in an ordinance that racism a public health crisis in Pittsburgh in December of 2019. For the last decades of the 20th century, all Pittsburgh residents were suffering from a stark decline in manufacturing jobs. This concern overshadowed the particular and more deeply felt poverty that had persisted for Black residents. But in these first decades of the 2000s, Pittsburgh is rising out of that slump and is reinventing itself as an “Eds and Meds” town. This bringing money and jobs in through Universities and hospital systems, and housing prices are increasing at shocking rates in many neighborhoods. Now that Pittsburgh is thriving, the inequality can be more starkly viewed, and the city has begun to ask, “Who is being left behind? Who is not thriving?”

“The objective here is to look for the deeper social, linguistic, economic, cultural, religious structures that inform the discourses we use to understand and frame the problem (and that are therefore biased).” (TD seminar website, 2020)


There are several underlying assumptions that drive a worldview that continues to cement racial inequities in Pittsburgh. One of the consistent narratives throughout our colonized history is that America is a culturally white or European nation. This dominant worldview puts the white Americans at the top of the cultural, economic, and political structures of our societies. It diminishes the value of non-white cultures, and centers white ways of being as ‘more civilized’. The lack of acknowledgment of the institutional and historical inequities faced by black Pittsburghers leads to blaming the individual for problems like crime and poverty, rather than the structures that have consistently failed them. This creates a vicious circle that reinforces the negative stereotypes of black people, which in turn perpetuates bias and exclusion.

In order to have cultural transitions that are long-lasting, we must look to the emerging narratives from grassroots efforts. The Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit (January 2020) introduced a new framing for its recent summit titled “Decolonize our History to Reclaim our Humanity”. The emerging discourse of “decolonization” invites a more pluralistic and intersectional effort towards reducing inequity and fighting against the dominant narrative of white supremacy.

“looks at the deep stories, collective archetypes and unconscious dimensions of the problem.” (TD seminar website, 2020)

Myths & Metaphors

Myths and metaphors are the deep-seated and unconscious stories that inform worldviews about an issue like racism. Some of the myths we have identified center around the classification of people based on their physiological, cultural, and geographic differences. The dominant narrative of difference, supported by various scientific, philosophical, and political schools of thought, has historically perpetuated the myth of a preferred or better race. This pervasive myth, while less overt in present times, has had an impact at multiple levels of scale from the intrapersonal (internalized racism) to the systemic-level (racist policies).

Imagining Two Possible Futures in 2075

Two projected futures — 1) A future where the problem has persisted and worsened 2) A future where the problem has been resolved and racial equity is has made all of Pittsburgh a healthier and more vibrant place.

The CLA framework is used to image two very different futures for Pittsburgh’s racial inequality

Image from an Unresolved Future: Everyday life, inequity, and denial

An imagined headline from a dystopian future for Pittsburgh

The news headline this morning stated: “In 2095, White Men Still at More Risk Than Ever: What Pittsburgh is Doing to Protect the Working Class.” As the anchors of Fox News, the predominant news network in America, discussed the trials and tribulations of white males, the words “All Lives Matter” scrolled across the bottom of the screen. The anchors themselves are white men, though clearly not afflicted by the severe conditions of those they were reporting on. I roll my eyes but don’t spend much time thinking about it. My roommate lost her life a few hours ago. As a black woman, her battle for existence came to a lonely and bleak end. Her name is Jean Hamilton Walls and I’d like to share her story with you today in commemoration of her life.

At 25 years old, Jean lived longer than 90% of women similar to her. 75% of black women in Pittsburgh die before the age of 15. Many at birth. I remember when my work with Joan’s community began back in 2020. At that time, the world was in lockdown from the Coronavirus and there was activist energy around protecting minority groups getting hit particularly hard by the virus. Racial inequity had been broadcast nationally, as a known problem to address. There were a few, at least that is what we thought, who felt that white men should be supreme to all others, extremists then who today represent every man. I even had a few guy friends who called themselves “liberals” and then made racial slurs and comments unconsciously when we were out together at the bar. It felt “academic” to jokingly point out that they were being implicitly biased and should go home to “decolonialize” themselves. While living with Jean, those words “implicit bias” would choke out of my throat, a poison that had led to her lack of liberty and justice, even her lack of freedom to life itself.

To pin-point one cause is like spinning around really fast until you can no longer make out the space around you and your head feels light headed. Jean always pointed to the school system, which had failed her at a young age. While segregation in Pittsburgh’s schools had been eradicated decades earlier, investments from white, wealthy, families meant that public schools were dilapidated and run-down. Black families who did not have the excess income to send their kids to private school, had no choice but to keep them in the public school system. Jean suffered from dyslexia that went unnoticed and undiagnosed by her overworked and underpaid teachers, so she dropped out in 4th grade after failing to pass the entrance exams for 5th grade. I had been teaching Jean to read until her final moments.

Jean’s grandparents lost their jobs when the last steel mill closed in 1994, in Hazelwood. Their household income was $15,000 USD in 2020, putting them at the lowest 3% of the United States, which led to generational poverty. I knew Jean’s mother and she often used to call Jean an angel, because it was hard to believe this sweet little baby had even survived past the age of 2. They had no opportunity to buy a home and rented in an area that was seeing gentrification increase the rents to nearly unsustainable rates year after year. Soon, Jean’s grandparents and mother were pushed out of Hazelwood and then Allegheny County altogether. Today, black people live inside walled communities and are given limited, if any, access to the white cities of America.

If I could send one message back to myself and my community, in Jean’s honor, it would be: There is a real risk in feeding the myth that white males are born with a right to the American Dream, because since the 1990s the American Dream has vanished and is, itself, a false reality to chase. Only by embracing otherness and humanity can we all rise up together. Perhaps with these sentiments we would come to truly understand what “All Lives Matter” means. Equity for all people, not just the white, elites.

Image from a Resolved Future: Everyday life, awakening, repairing

An imagined headline from a preferred future for Pittsburgh

On this night two years ago, Pittsburgh witnessed its largest party in history as most residents were exhilarated to know their beloved mayor, Jean Hamilton Walls, made history as a black female President of the United States from Pittsburgh. I can still recall the acclamations and screams we shared in Jean’s campaign office that night. As soon as the result was announced, everyone started to jump up and down and embrace each other. Frankly most of us and other Americans expected Jean’s election since she had been predicted to win in all states. Her strenuous efforts to promote universal healthcare and universal base income made her a favorite candidate among different groups of individuals and throughout society. Probably only a few of us in the room knew that about half a century ago, a black female president from Pittsburgh would seem like the wildest dream.

America today is no longer as it has been. Seventy-five years ago, in 2020, the notorious Coronavirus pandemic shook the world. And the US was among the hardest-hit countries. Within the US, the disease’s extremely disproportionate impact on African American communities awoke people to the country’s deep-rooted racist systems. More and more attention was given to support the disadvantaged black communities. It started with a few entrepreneurs and philanthropists including the then megastar Beyonce and several NFL athletes donating millions of dollars to help black families get through the pandemic. Then many residents from all ages, genders, and racial groups joined their forces, forming grass-root organizations and helping to provide resources to the black population. Those efforts continued beyond the pandemic and significantly contributed to the societal shift to a more equitable system in many US cities. It was around that time that Pittsburgh started to transform from a city rated the least livable place for black women to a place that nurtured the first black female president.

Jean’s mother was among the many black essential workers in Pittsburgh who contracted the Coronavirus. Thanks to the financial support from the BeGOOD foundation, her mother was able to afford treatment and recover from the disease. During the decade after the pandemic, Pittsburgh implemented plans to pay reparations to descendants of African slaves after realizing the many structural barriers that African Americans often have to face when navigating in society. The city government also committed to offering subsidiary loans to those families that had lost their homes in the city’s urban renewal project since the 1950s. In addition, efforts were made to redistribute resources among all schools in Pittsburgh equitably. The previously disadvantaged neighborhoods received additional funding to improve public infrastructures. Jean’s family was a beneficiary of those strategic plans. By the time Jean was born, her family bought a new house supported by the government and her father’s small business that he built from the reparation money started to take off. As more businesses boomed and the urban environment was improved in the Hill district that the family resided in, the area attracted people of different colors and backgrounds to move in and eventually became one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country.

To accommodate the increased number of school children, the city rebuilt Schenley High School in the Hill District in 2038, 30 years after it was originally closed and sold to a real estate developer. The school once produced many black luminaries including the first black Harvard law professor in the early 20th century. After it reopened, the school continued to build its legacy by supporting students from different racial groups. It established scholarships for black students from low-income families. It also made Racial Studies a required course where all students learn about how the concept of race originated and how false association between skin color and stereotypes led to implicit bias and systemic racism that had been plaguing the US. Jean was the valedictorian of the first graduating class from the new Schenley High School.

When Jean asked me to help her on her presidential campaign, I said yes immediately not only because she is the most talented individual I knew, but also because I knew the time was right. It is a time when people no longer associate skin color with stereotypes or social classes and instead appreciate everyone’s unique personality and experiences. I am glad to see the future that we had been fighting for eventually becomes the present.

Conclusion: Discussion and Challenges

For a social issue like racism, the CLA is a good pairing with the Multi-level Perspective Mapping where we looked at the socio-technical activities that emerged over time for our wicked problem. The CLA helps unearth the deeper attitudes, mindsets, and beliefs that led to certain behaviors and actions at the regime and niche layers of the MLP.

By diving deeper into the Worldviews and Myths & Metaphors of the CLA, we were able to be generative in imagining many possible futures that could play out. Starting from the layers in the present, we could extrapolate two diverging futures one in which the wicked problem has been resolved, and another where it has not been resolved.

One of the challenges we faced was speculating which layer would be appropriate for placing our analysis of the problem. Inayatullah (1998) acknowledges that this could be the case for newcomers to the process.

Tactically, we experimented with the number of sticky notes in the CLA framework. At first, we filled each layer with as many different ideas as we could. These ideas came quickly for the first two layers because of the fruitful discussions we uncovered with the previous Multi-Layer Perspective assignment. But it was overwhelming to look at so many different facets of the inequity issue at once, especially when imagining the future. It was challenging to create a vivid narrative of the future or to dig deeply into myths and metaphors with so many different elements.

So with fresh eyes, and based on Inayatullah’s case studies (1998, p. 821), we built two stories of the future based on a simplified concept. If we imagine that these issues persist, the “All Lives Matter” worldview will dominate — a denial that there are any inequalities due to race (Future 1). If we imagine that many of the current issues are acknowledged, addressed, and resolved, then a “Black Lives Matter” worldview can be embraced and cared for by the city (Future 2). This approach helped us to focus our thinking on the most significant aspects of the challenge of racial inequity. Those post-its show up as the lighter-colored post-its at each layer of the futures in the CLA. Both the simplified and the complex collections informed this report.

Our final assignment in TD seminar is “Designing Systems Interventions”. The CLA gave us deeper insight into the leverage points for change we considered during our MLP mapping (seen here). Listed below, are the areas we identified and will further explore in our next, and final, medium post.

  • Decreasing racist mindsets and policy
  • Desegregating Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods
  • Ownership and agency for black residents
  • Equitable urban planning
  • Fair policing
  • Integrated and thriving public schools

The CLA required us to look back at these initial ideas and see them in a new way, highlighting the myths and metaphors that fueled concepts at the litany. We found it useful to consider potential futures to frame up our thinking as we move forward into systems level change.


Asma, S. (1995). Metaphors of race: theoretical presuppositions behind racism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 32(1), 13–30. Retrieved from

Inayatullah, S. (1998) “Causal Layered Analysis: Poststructuralism as method” Futures, Vol. 30, №8, pp 815–829. Elsevier Science Ltd.

Kendi, I. X. (2020) “Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus: New data from 29 states confirm the extent of the racial disparities” The Atlantic, April 14, 2020

Kossoff, G. and Irwin, T. (2020) “Transition Design Seminar 2020” website

O’Driscoll, B. (2019) “‘There Are Black People In The Future’ Resident Artists Present Their Projects” website



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