Sunday, March 04, 2001

Tristate divided by race

Key leaders, in rare gathering, agree problem threatens region

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Poor race relations is one of the biggest problems facing Greater Cincinnati, limiting opportunities today and threatening the region's future, an influential group of Tristate leaders says.

        Racial divisions, the leaders say, need to be addressed in education, jobs, housing, law enforcement and even in hundreds of routine, daily exchanges between people of all colors.

        “The future of this city depends more on our ability to treat one another fairly than on any single economic issue, and I think we have a long way to go,” Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken says. He ranks improving race relations as the city's No. 1 priority.

  • What do you think?
  • Problem areas identified by panel
  • Why this project? Time for a community conversation
  • Groups working on race issues
        The 28 leaders represent a rare cross-section of Tristate business, education, religion, public safety, media, civic and legal interests to focus on race. At the invitation of The Cincinnati Enquirer, they agreed to sit down together because of the topic and the people who were there.

        Their hope, they say, is that such a group of leaders can start something meaningful, bring others in, and finally make a difference. They say too many Greater Cincinnatians deny there is a problem, and too many people are too polite to discuss race outside segregated groups.

        But the discussion is growing.

        “This is not like building a stadium,” says John Pepper, chairman of Procter & Gamble Co. “It isn't something you do, and three years later the stadium is built. It's an ongoing effort and deserves ongoing leadership.”

        Who will lead a ground-breaking effort, and how they'll do it, remains unsettled. Some suggest a regionwide commission. Others say everyone should personally tackle one small piece.

        The Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage, says white clergy should be as vocal as African-American faith leaders.

        Almost all agree that failure to aggressively address racial issues could carry dire consequences.

        Cincinnati will be left behind other cities that have worked through racial problems, the leaders say. It will be harder to attract new businesses and recruit families to work here. The gap between the haves and have nots will grow. The city will continue to lose population and tax base, leaving a rotting urban core that eventually will seep into the suburbs and beyond.

        Furthermore, these leaders say, families are at risk. The leaders say they want to make Greater Cincinnati a better place for their children, not one where whites and blacks live separate lives.

        “I have two small children. I would hate for my son to be singled out because of race and get into an uncomfortable, indignant situation,” says Jeffery P. Hopkins, a U.S. bankruptcy court judge.

        “I want them both to be able to grow up in an environment, a community, where race does not play such a role.”

"I have to care'
               The leaders live in North Avondale and Kennedy Heights, Springdale and Northern Kentucky, and all over the Tristate. They are men and women, young and old, black and white. They met for more than four hours Feb. 21 at the Enquirer's Elm Street offices.

        Nathaniel Jones remembers the days when he couldn't go to the movie theater, the YMCA or the pool with whites. A U.S. Court of Appeals judge, he grew up during the “separate but equal” era. Judge Jones, 73, feels an obligation to educate people about race relations.

        Mr. Pepper set aside time for the meeting on the same day his company announced it had reached a more than $4 billion deal with Coca-Cola. Improving race relations is his highest priority because he's seen how much better a community and a company can operate when blacks and whites come together.

        Mayor Luken hopes to lead a city that is the sum of its parts, not one divided by its races.

        As president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, Sheila Adams joined the group to represent her organization. But she also attended the meeting for personal reasons.

        “I have to care,” she says. “I have no choice. The future of not only my race, but my children and my grandchildren, are dependent upon having a society that values all of its contributors. And that is not the case today.

        “Sheila Adams will be fine. But if I don't do something to help those who are coming up behind me, then shame on me.”

"A widening gap'
               Progress has been made over the years, the leaders say. Yet whites remain fearful of saying the wrong things in race discussions or being attacked as insensitive. And blacks say significant racial disparity endures, holding minorities back in education, jobs and housing.

        Accusations of police brutality in the death of Roger Owensby Jr. and threatened lawsuits over racial profiling are the kinds of conflicts that cause mistrust and uncertainty to deepen. Yet the racial divide runs so much deeper than current events that people of different colors find it hard even to talk about problems, the leaders say.

        “I just see a widening gap between the white population and the black population,” says Karla Irvine, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal.

        “There's increasing racial isolation in both groups. Our lives are isolated, our schools are isolated and, for a lot of us, our offices are very isolated. People continue to live in isolated neighborhoods. It makes a big difference where you raise your kids and where they go to school.”

        Cincinnati's long-held pride in being one of America's most liveable cities is being challenged, the leaders say.

        New numbers from the 2000 Census, due out this month, are expected to show a marked decrease in Cincinnati's population as whites leave for the suburbs. Cincinnati's population is expected to be 42percent African-American, compared to 12 percent for the metro region's 13 counties.

        “I see Cincinnati as being in denial that there is a race problem,” says Clifford A. Bailey, president of TechSoft Systems Inc. and chairman of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., a group that promotes downtown business and housing.

        “I'm looking for Cincinnati to be a much better city than it is currently. I want my children to be proud to say that they live in this area. Right now, I think they would have to say that with much hesitation.”

        Several leaders say the $45 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center should be as much about improving race relations today as remembering those who fought racism in the past.

        “It would be a terrible irony to have the Freedom Center in a city that isn't moving forward (in race relations),” P&G's Mr. Pepper says.
       head "Ready to move on'

        Cincinnati has practiced a pattern of polite silence on the issue of race long enough, the leaders say.

        “High-performing communities spend more time looking outward than inward,” says James Votruba, president of Northern Kentucky University. ""It's not good enough in this issue of race to compare ourselves to our past when others are moving rapidly.”

        Some leaders say education should be dealt with first. But each piece is an important part of the puzzle. Without a good education, it's hard to get a good job. Without a good job, it's hard to earn a good paycheck. Without adequate income, it's difficult to buy a house, which helps lead to a stable home, which helps lead to a good education.

        “It's really a step-by-step proposition because it's such a complicated issue,” Judge Jones says. “But the important thing is to launch it. We've got to really measure the extent that race continues to be a problem.”

        Some leaders say they want to meet again, to map out a mission and to target particular areas, such as education and communication, where race relations hinder progress. They don't want the issue to drop.

        “I think all of Cincinnati talks more than it does,” Mr. Bailey says. “Frankly, what I've seen is people are no longer interested in talking about problems, particularly this one. We are ready to move on to implementation and solutions.

        “We are looking for immediate response. We are no longer interested in "Let's take this slowly.' People are now looking for things to be revolutionized, which means to accelerate improvement. Delaying actions on the matter is no longer acceptable.”

What do you think?
Problem areas identified by panel
Why this project? Time for a community conversation
Groups working on race issues

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