Divided by race
When it comes to race relations, Cincinnati has a tough time talking about its problems
November 14, 1993
Racial attitudes in Cincinnati come wrapped in a polite silence, a silence that each day contributes to a costly, widening gap between whites and blacks.
The Enquirer has spent four months examining race relations today in Cincinnati and the attitudes that shape them. Through interviews with hundreds of blacks and whites from all walks of life, a portrait emerges of two separate communities that know little about each other.
Discrimination, prejudice, and injustice persist in our community. But a stable economy, long-standing neighborhood identities, and an unspoken rule that rocking the boat won’t do anyone any good, many people say, mute serious discussion of race relations.
“There is a denial in Cincinnati that we have a race problem,” said Robert C. Harrod, executive director of the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Harrod, who is white, has led cultural diversity training for employees of two dozen Greater Cincinnati businesses. Harrod said race relations in Cincinnati are tense. He described racial attitudes – the feelings and opinions that shape our behavior toward one another across racial lines – as stiff, slow to change and built mostly on indifference.
Many blacks say there is still an uneven playing field in most areas where whites and blacks co-exist. Black Cincinnatians feel they are required to be “superblacks” just to be accepted into mainstream white society, a requirement they say is every bit as divisive as the old rules of segregation.
Many whites, on the other hand, believe the scales of equality have tipped too far toward blacks. Equality, this group argues, should be colorblind when it comes to housing or employment, with no favoritism either way.
The average white Cincinnatian, Harrod said, considers race a non-issue today, a problem solved through civil rights battles 25 years ago. The average white person, Harrod said, concludes that if he does not wear a sheet, burn a cross, or use “the n-word,” he does not have to worry about his own racial attitudes.
What is really happening, Harrod said, is that whites “employ a very limited definition of racism to distance ourselves from it,” which allows race problems to grow worse.
“Cities that have made racial progress have made a lot of noise doing it. My hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, is one,” said daphne Sloan, executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Corporation, 48 and black. “Cincinnati has a denial and a behavioral fronting about it that suggests all is well. I think Cincinnati has been lying to itself for so long that it actually believes there is no race problem here whatsoever.”
When the majority’s racial attitude is denial, sociologists say, open discussion becomes a necessary first step to clearly understanding and solving problems. This week’s six-part series will examine how racial attitudes shape our lives and how Cincinnati’s peculiar silence might be broken in pursuit of positive change.
* * *
Race relations in the eight-county Greater Cincinnati area means black-white relations.
The city of Cincinnati is 60 percent white, 38 percent black. Hamilton County, including Cincinnati, is 77 percent white, 21 percent black. The combined eight-county area – Hamilton, Clermont, Butler and Warren, Northern Kentucky’s Boone, Campbell and Kenton, and Indiana’s dearborn County – is 87 percent white and 12 percent black.
And events of the last year suggest Cincinnati is not a healthy community when it comes to race relations.
Incidents such as the controversy over Marge Schott’s racist comments, the erection of a Ku Klux Klan cross on Fountain Square, or the black-white barroom fight that polarized Lower Price Hill, show how quickly racial attitudes here can escalate into racial flashpoints. In terms of racial attitudes, sociologists say, these incidents are symptoms of an unhealthy community.
Sociologists and urban experts describe an ideal, healthy community as one where all people feel they belong and can contribute, where diversity and constructive conflict are valued. For a community to move toward that ideal, experts say, people must know and trust each other enough to work together on difficult problems.
In Cincinnati, however, “blacks and whites just don’t know each other,” said Joe Jones, 73, a retired foundry worker from Springfield Township who was displaced from the West End by the construction of Interstate 75 in the 1960s. “I think people want them (race relations) to be better.
“They’re just not willing to do what it takes to make them better, and that goes for both sides,” said Jones, who is black.
Across the divide that separates black and white attitudes in Cincinnati, the sides seem to view each other with a mixture of fear and ignorance.
Michael Maloney, who teaches urban affairs at the university of Cincinnati and at Chat-feld College in Brown County, said he thinks race relations in Cincinnati are “getting worse in every respect. Attitudes have hardened. Whites see the black world as twofold,” said Maloney, who is white. “The perception of acceptable blacks continues to improve. And the attitude toward unacceptable blacks has hardened. These are the poor and working-class blacks. There’s a lot of anger.”
Much of the black anger, said dr. Emmett Cooper, a psychiatrist and medical director at Emerson North Hospital, comes from small, day-to-day encounters, moments when an insensitive remark or action by a white person injects race as a stamp of inferiority.
“When you have no contact, you fill in the blank with whatever you’ve been taught by your family, institutions, and the media,” said Cooper, who is black. “Many whites are taught that blacks are second-class citizens, and that is how they treat them.”
In his new book, The Rage of a Privileged Class (HarperCollins), Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose writes that such everyday incidents for black professionals “are not so much isolated incidents as insistent and galling reminders that whatever they may accomplish in life, race remains their most salient feature as far as much of America is concerned.”
The lack of open discussion or vigorous debate on race issues in Cincinnati, local observers say, is part of the city’s character.
“Cincinnati is a pragmatic, non confrontational town that is more interested in results than in symbolic gestures,” said the Rev. duane Holm, director of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, an organization formed in the wake of the 1968 race riots to allow various denominations to work together on social concerns.
Said Sheila Adams, president of the urban League of Greater Cincinnati, “You can tell Cincinnati is on the Mason-dixon Line. We are behind the times. The city has a conservative tradition and has not spoken out honestly on race relations.”
dwight Tillery, 45, the native Cincinnatian who became the city’s first popularly elected black mayor in 1991, but this month finished second to mayor-elect Roxanne Qualls, said, “I think that there is such a level of discomfort [that] people just want to get away from it as not existing. And if you want to talk about it [race relations], you’re creating problems, making an issue.”
Some people take issue with the view that Cincinnati suffers racist attitudes in silence.
Alfred Tuchfarber, director of the Institute of Public Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, said, “I disagree with almost all of those points. . . . We have made race one of the central issues of our age, much to our great disadvantage. We must have equal civil rights for everybody. That’s essential. But by emphasizing group benefits, we emphasize differences. We’ve moved beyond equal award of civil rights to a point where we’re rewarding results on basis of group membership. I have done many studies that show people here are, in affirmative action issues, more liberal than the rest of the country.”
Compared with some American cities, others say, Cincinnati’s race relations are enviable. They point to the Los Angeles riots or the racially tinged New York City mayoral race. In contrast, the recent election here put three black members on a nine-member city council. Two of the four new Cincinnati school board members are also black.
“After all is said and done, Cincinnati is a fine place to be. Race relations are better here than most places,” said Michael Rapp, executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council.
“Sure, prejudice, bigotry, and scapegoating exist, and to deny their existence is erroneous and dangerous. There are those who want to underestimate the problem. There are those who say it’s omnipresent. I would say it’s someplace in between.”
* * *
But beneath the debate over Cincinnati’s racial climate, statistics and anecdotal evidence show a community growing more racially separate and unequal.
The phenomenon of white fight is real: some whites, acting on the attitude that crime, drugs, and falling property values are caused by blacks, continue to move away from the city to predominantly white suburbs.
According to the 1990 Census, almost 50,000 whites moved to Clermont, Brown, Warren, and Boone counties between 1980 and 1990. For the same period, only about 1,100 blacks made the same move.
In that period, the city of Cincinnati’s white population decreased by 31,000, while its black population increased by 8,000.
Employment: The disparity in Cincinnati’s black and white unemployment rates – 15.8 percent for blacks and 4.7 percent for whites – was ninth highest of the 45 urban areas analyzed by the u.S. department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Geographic Profile of Employment and Unemployment, 1992.
Education is another area in which unequal treatment by race is an issue. Plaintiffs in the 19-year-old school desegregation case Bronson vs. Board of Education settled on a plan last month to improve black students’ achievement in the Cincinnati Public Schools. Concerns remain on the disparity in discipline rates of black and white students and the test scores of students enrolled in eight predominantly black, low-achieving schools.
Opportunity is also seen as unfairly distributed. Blacks who have negotiated the currents of corporate Cincinnati say their progress has been slowed, if not altogether stalled, by a glass ceiling. The pools of real power and big money remain the exclusive domain of white males.
“There’s an attitude in Cincinnati business that the aggressive white male can push his way to the top,” said Ed Rigaud, 50, vice president in food and beverage products at Procter & Gamble and one of only two black vice presidents in the company. “The same approach by a black male will be seen as too aggressive and downright militant.”
On the other hand, says Paul L. Schneider, 32, an assistant manager at the FreeStore’s FoodBank division and a Price Hill resident, there is considerable backlash against equal opportunity efforts.
“By their actions and words, blacks have established an us-vs.-them mentality,” he said. “All I know is there are a lot of white middle-class guys sitting in bars with racist images in their heads who otherwise wouldn’t have them because they didn’t get a job because they were the wrong color.”
Crime and punishment is also a site of differential treatment. Blacks in Cincinnati are four times as likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites, even though law enforcement officials say blacks and whites use drugs at nearly the same rate.
Police say drug traffic is easier to spot in black neighborhoods because it occurs out in the open. In suburban, predominantly white neighborhoods, dealers tend to sell only to people they know.
* * *
Unchecked, many residents and urban experts say, the disparity in treatment of whites and blacks and widening gaps between the predominant white haves and black have-nots will further isolate Cincinnati’s inner city and turn Cincinnati into a two-society city.
“One of the problems with racism is the great loss of community that accompanies it. Racism inspires a dog-eat-dog mentality among individuals,” said former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan, guest lecturer at the university of Cincinnati College of Law and organizer of a spring 1993 civic forum seminar that discussed local attitudes about race.
That loss of community reaches well beyond an area’s urban center. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia suggests that the ghettoization and economic entrapment of much of Cincinnati’s black population will catch up to its white suburbs.
Richard Voith, a senior economist and research adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, studied 28 metropolitan areas – including Cincinnati. His major finding: suburban growth has become increasingly dependent on the economic viability and growth of a downtown.
“Declining cities will eventually undermine suburban growth,” Voith wrote in his 1992 report. “If city decline results in a concentration of the population with very little education and in a deteriorating physical infrastructure eventually the decline is likely to impose additional costs manifested by high crime, poor health, and unproductive workers.”