Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Celebrities could help integration

        Even the best of us occasionally succumbs to name-dropping. I'm certainly not the best of us, so I do it all the time.

        “Is the mayor losing weight? Charlie looked thinner when I saw him the other day.”

        “Barry Larkin? I don't know him well (implying, of course, that I know him better than the average person), but I just love his mother, Shirley.”

        Channel 9's Carol Williams used to live in my neighborhood, so naturally I bragged about that. And once we had a little farm right down the road from Neil Armstrong's considerably larger one. I might have mentioned that a time or two. Or 27.

A history lesson

        Human nature. That's what it is, a tendency to want to hang around with people we admire. And sometimes we accidentally learn from them. This could be useful. Especially here. Especially now.

        Leadership is not always government. Somebody who can change the way we think is at least as important as somebody who can change our laws: Billy Graham, Oprah, Katharine Graham, James Baldwin, Margaret Sanger, Harriet Beecher Stowe. And Zane Miller.

        Haven't heard of that last guy? Well, no one will ever pay Dr. Miller a gazillion dollars to put his name on a gym shoe. But we would be a better community if we would pay attention to what he knows.

        In January of 1999, Dr. Miller lectured a crowd at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches history. He warned the group of influential Greater Cincinnatians about the dangers of “involuntary racial residential segregation.”

        Slums. Ghettos.

        “Over-the-Rhine,” he said, “has become a 6-mile-long involuntary black neighborhood.” With segregation comes “a climate of mutual fear, misunderstanding, mistrust and resentment.”

        Sound familiar?

Racial "Welcome Wagons'

        He suggested “people with some visibility” should take the lead in integrating housing here. We were all very much entertained and enlightened. Then we put on our coats, climbed into our cars and drove to our mostly segregated neighborhoods apparently to await another instructive evening, which happened with a vengeance on April 9.

        Rioting in the streets. And it began in the “city's most enduring ghetto.” Charlie Luken formed a commission. “We need a commission,” Dr. Miller says, “but not like the one Charlie has put together.”

        Celebrities, he says. We need people admired in both the white and black communities, the kind of people a company might hire to endorse its cell phones or shoes or automobiles. Instead, they would endorse integrated housing. They would lure rather than legislate. And they would put their families and furniture where their mouths are.

        In his latest book, Visions of Place (Ohio State University Press, $37), the professor outlines a plan. This celebrity leadership would produce radio and television ads, set up “racial Welcome Wagons.”

        He has a wish list of people for his commission, people such as UC coach Bob Huggins, Steven Spielberg, Barry Larkin, the Symphony's Paavo Jarvi, Mike Brown. O'dell Owens, John Pepper, Cammy Dierking.

        Well, you get the idea.

        Years ago, he says, government made a conscious choice to segregate neighborhoods. We can make a conscious choice to come back together.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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