“These are no ordinary times”
The NAACP is returning to Cincinnati for its 107th annual convention
July 10, 2016
Noah Sherman is a big, dark-complected young man. He knows what it means when he physically goes out into the world.
“I am perceived as scary,” said the 19-year-old Westwood resident who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 260 pounds. “I have to come into a room with a smile. I have to be jolly. Otherwise, I am seen as the menacing and angry black man.”
A second-year criminal justice major at the university of Cincinnati, Sherman has long-range concerns like “getting a job, having a future. I worry about it. It’s scary. We have a lot of this going in with society.”
Fear is all around him. He is feared. He fears how some people might treat him or what they think of him. Others fear him.
The country is rocked with fear of “the other”–Mexican and Central American immigrants, Muslims, the federal government. Donald Trump supporters. Some whites fear blacks. Some blacks fear whites. Fear is our new national pastime.
Noah Sherman is one witness to where we are in America. In terms of race relations, he is not in a good place. By extension, as a nation, neither are we.
The NAACP comes to Cincinnati this week with an estimated 10,000 delegates for its 107th annual convention. Cornell William Brooks, its president and CEO, prefaced this meeting with the simple but clear declaration: “These are no ordinary times.”
Are these times in which it is critical to ask where the fear and rage come from? Is it prompted, in part, by questions like: Isn’t the civil rights movement over? Weren’t those issues resolved 50 years ago?
And, if so, doesn’t that make the NAACP obsolete and irrelevant?
The NAACP last brought its national convention to Cincinnati eight years ago –in 2008– when one of the notable guest speakers was the then-junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. “Eight years ago,” Brooks said, “we were on the eve of a post-millennial civil rights movement.”
If we are there, it has not turned out as some had hoped. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garvey. “I can’t breathe.” John Crawford III. The Emmanuel Nine in Charleston, South Carolina. Poisoned water in Flint. Michael Brown Jr. Ferguson, Missouri. Baltimore. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Black Lives Matter. Samuel duBose. Shelby v. Holder and the Voting Rights Act.
We are here.
“We are on the eve of the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act,” Brooks said. “It’s a very significant moment. We are about to elect a president in a radically different political landscape than Barack Obama walked upon in 2008.”
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were unconstitutional. To date, 17 states – including Ohio, which has reduced the number of early-voting days and is purging inactive voters from its rolls – will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. The new laws include strict photo Id requirements, early voting cutbacks, and registration restrictions.
“Jim Crow 2.0,” Brooks said.
Been here before
The NAACP had been to Cincinnati twice before 2008 for its national convention, in 1946 and 1970.
In 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson would break Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the issues of great importance to Cincinnati’s black community involved housing and education. Whites had been moved out of the West End to public housing to the north (English Woods and Winton Terrace) and the Laurel Homes project in the West End would be converted to all-black residency. The Cincinnati Board of Education would cooperate by building “new Negro” middle and high schools in the West End.
In 1970, two years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the second of two consecutive years of rioting in Avondale, race-related fghts would close two Greater Cincinnati high schools (Withrow and North College Hill) for days at a time. NAACP lawyers would not fle the Bronson v. The Cincinnati Board of Education lawsuit seeking complete desegregation of public schools for another four years. The practice of prohibiting the sale of homes to black buyers – it’s called “redlining” – was common throughout Hamilton County.
Now a former federal judge, Nathaniel Jones attended the 1970 convention as the national NAACP’s general counsel.
“We heard from the outside in 1970 that we were irrelevant,” said Jones, who will be honored at the convention’s closing-night banquet June 20 with the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. “What’s happening this year makes this year’s convention of tremendous importance.”
The divide gets wider
As dated as the concerns of the 1940s and 1970s might appear in retrospect, an ever-increasing number of signs point to a widening racial gap. The arc of the Obama presidency from 2008 to 2016 has brought about its own brand of racial backlash.
The number of hate groups spiked with Obama’s 2008 election before trailing off. The number dropped to 784 in 2014 but increased again to 892 in 2015, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Alabama.
Tea Party rallies, designed to protest “big government” and “high taxes,” have featured increasing numbers of anti-black and anti-Obama messages, including some suggesting the president should be lynched on the White House grounds.
In the new book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, author Carol Anderson tracks the efforts of white Americans over the centuries to limit or reverse black progress.
The Pew Research Center in late June released a report on the state of race relations in America. It shows that 88 percent of blacks say the united States needs to continue to make legal and social changes in order for African-Americans to have equal rights with whites. Just 53 percent of whites say the country needs to make those improvements for blacks to achieve equality.
The Pew report also refects the nation’s political polarization: “About six in 10 (59 percent) white Republicans say too much attention is paid to race and racial issues these days, while only 21 percent of white democrats agree.”
The NAACP will be in Cincinnati on July 19, the one-year anniversary of duBose’s death at the hands of white university of Cincinnati police offcer Ray Tensing during a traffc stop for a missing front license plate in Mount Auburn. Tensing faces a murder charge when he goes to trial October 24.
The NAACP comes to a city enjoying a rebirth that, statistically, is benefitting white residents far more than its black population. Government-funded redevelopment of The Banks and Over-the-Rhine is generally out of reach of the city’s African-Americans.
The 2016 National urban League State of Black America report shows that median household income for the region’s African-Americans is less than half of that for whites – $28,600 compared to $58,000. Meanwhile, the black unemployment rate is double that for whites.
The national urban League report followed a 164-page local urban League publication, “The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: Two Cities,” that documented race-based disparities across the board in education, income, incarceration, health, and life expectancy.
“Until and unless we allow everyone the opportunity to realize their full potential, our region will never be as vibrant or as rich as it could be,” said Donna Jones Baker, president and CEO of the Urban League of Southwestern Ohio, which covers the Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, areas.
The lack of white acceptance of such facts focuses frequently on a perceived lack of work ethic among African-Americans – if only they tried harder, like the Irish and Italian immigrants– and violent crime, particularly the phenomenon known as black-on-black crime. It asserts the supposition that African-Americans are largely responsible for their substandard conditions.
NAACP president and CEO Brooks said the organization promotes personal responsibility and supports churches, mosques, and other institutions in the black community that make the same call. Yet, he said, crime is a product of a toxic combination of poor schools, poor policing, and the lack of jobs.
“It is that way in any community that is inundated with guns and drugs with ineffective policing and insufficient economic hope – regardless of race,” Brooks said.
Earlier in June, Georgetown university sociologist and author Michael Eric Dyson gave the keynote address at a community event called the “Black Agenda Cincinnati.” It drew 1,500 people to a daylong workshop at Woodward Career Technical High School in Bond Hill.
He said white references to black-on-black crime are intended to distract and to divert attention from larger issues of economic inequality and police misconduct. According to the U.S. department of Justice, 93 percent of black homicide victims are killed by another black person; 84 percent of white homicide victims are killed by another white. “If you want integrated homicide rates, you’ve got to have integrated communities,” Dyson said.
Cincinnati is the nation’s fifth most residentially segregated metropolitan region. African-Americans have not shared in economic growth nationally and locally. As efforts at racial integration have fallen apart, blacks have been ghettoized in low-income, economically deprived, higher-crime neighborhoods that its residents say offer a small bridge out.
“The masses of black people do not do well,” Dyson said. “They suffer in poor housing and poor schools. They are disproportionately put in prison. They are disproportionately expelled from kindergarten through high school. It’s the best of times for some upper- and middle-class African-American people and the worst of times for the masses stuck at the bottom.”
One barrier down, many to go
These types of race-based economic, housing, police–community, health, and criminal-justice issues play out in the daily lives of African-Americans here and across the country.
Noah Sherman sees plenty of people stuck on the bottom of the city’s economic ladder in his home neighborhood of Westwood. He also remembers what he, even as an 11-year-old boy, felt at the dawn of the Obama presidency.
“He broke down barriers, but I remember being afraid that he wasn’t going to be able to get stuff done,” Sherman said.
As he aged through the Obama years, issues of race became more pronounced in the young black man’s life. As a student at dePaul Cristo Rey High School, Clifton, Sherman recalls a conversation with a white classmate in which she said race didn’t play any role in society.
“I’ve learned from my life experiences that race plays a part in everything,” he said. That’s one of the reasons Sherman became involved in the NAACP at age 13 when he joined the local youth council. Today he is president of the NAACP’s Ohio state Youth and College division and a full voting member of the Cincinnati branch.
He is interested in law, even if he decides not to pursue it as a career. Knowledge is power, he said. He wants to know his legal rights. He wants to educate other African-Americans who either don’t know their rights or don’t make the effort to know them. He sees many people in his community who are “tormented” by job discrimination or by interactions with police in which their civil rights are violated, he said.
Fear of the police is omnipresent in the black experience here, even though, Sherman said, “I know some good police officers. Not all police officers are bad.”
For the most part, Sherman avoided the trapdoors of growing up black and male in this society. He talked in 2014 at a town hall meeting in Evanston about a white police officer in a cruiser following him slowly for no reason as he walked home on foot.
“How can I feel safe from the police?” Sherman asked a panel that included former Cincinnati police chief Jeffrey Blackwell and councilman Chris Seelbach.
That fear motivates Nicole Taylor to invest a great deal of her time in the NAACP as its third vice president. The 36-year-old mother of three from Westwood also chairs the Cincinnati NAACP’s criminal justice and public safety committee.
Her fear is more intense and more personal than her anger. Taylor has two daughters, 6 and 18, the oldest a 2016 dater High School graduate who will attend Tuskegee university.
Her 9-year-old child is a son, Jordan Stephens.
“In a few years, he is going to be a young black man and looked at as a threat,” Taylor said. “I couldn’t imagine losing him in an open-carry state.”
In Ohio, 570,000 people have received new concealed-carry handgun licenses or have renewed them, according to state documents. In 2015 alone, 97,000 new permits were issued, a 50 percent increase from 2012.
Taylor fears citizens who carry guns. She fears police. She knows details of cases in which black men and boys have died. John Crawford III, 22, was shot and killed by police in a suburban dayton, Ohio, Walmart store while holding a toy BB gun. “Tamir, Trayvon, none of them deserved to die.”
In March 2012, Taylor took her son, then 5, to a rally on Fountain Square that protested the death of Martin, the Florida teenager gunned down by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Taylor blinked back tears in a sharp early spring western sun that evening and said, “While I can’t imagine that he will be looked at and feared, I know he will be.”
In her role with the NAACP, Taylor helped to craft a resolution that will go to the entire national delegation for a vote. It calls for mandatory increases in police de-escalation training. If approved, the resolution would become part of the NAACP’s national platform.
“It happens over and over and over, unarmed black men being killed by police. It hurts,” said Taylor, who works for an international labor union. “It’s so overwhelming that you feel helpless, but I reject that. We have the right to live in a society that is not racist.”