Sunday, September 02, 2001

Races See Two Cincinnatis

A new poll commissioned by The Enquirer finds deep divisions in the way blacks and whites view their lives, themselves and each other

By John Byczkowski and Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

       Picture two starkly different Cincinnatis: In one, many white people feel safe and secure in their homes and neighborhoods, optimistic about their jobs and the futures of their children.

        In the other, many black people worry about daily survival -- about becoming victims of violent crime and being stopped by police, about being discriminated against in places where they work, eat and shop.

  • Complete poll results and PDF of the report
  • About this series
  • How this poll was done
  • Tell us what you think
  • Letter from the Editor
  • Subtle racism gets under blacks' skin
  • City combines best, worst of North, South
  • Tensions hurt potential for growth

Complete coverage in our special section.
        Nearly five months after April's riots, a new Enquirer poll finds that attitudes of Greater Cincinnati whites and blacks range from contentment to despair.

        Whites are much more satisfied than blacks with their communities and homes and their safety from physical harm. Blacks are four times as likely to believe that their local police stop minorities simply because of their race. A third of blacks are discouraged by opportunities they've had to succeed in life, and they're equally pessimistic for their kids.

        Race relations are so strained that 85 percent of both whites and blacks rank them as a serious problem in the region. Almost as many people of both races think violence could erupt again.

        ''As far as the great dream of everybody coming together, it hasn't happened,'' says Charles Day, a white videographer in Middletown who took part in the Enquirer survey. ''I hope for my children that things will get better.''

        The Enquirer poll is the first comprehensive survey of racial attitudes since the April riots. It was conducted by the Mason-Dixon Polling & Research group of Columbia, Md., which interviewed 1,112 Greater Cincinnati adults by phone Aug. 17-23.

        Responses were tabulated by race and weighted to represent true black and white populations in Hamilton, Warren, Butler and Clermont counties in Ohio, and Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties in Kentucky. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points for white responses and plus or minus 5 percentage points for black responses.

Largest split in city

        When asked what they think are top issues facing their communities today, black and white respondents reveal significant differences.

        Whites are worried most about poor-performing schools and the quality of their kids' educations and about urban sprawl; race relations is third.

        Blacks are worried most about race relations and discrimination. Violent crime is next; drug and alcohol abuse ties for third with poor schools.

        The split looks even wider when viewed through the lens of blacks who live in the city of Cincinnati.

        Nearly half of city blacks say crime issues -- violent crime, petty crime and drug and alcohol abuse -- are their biggest concerns. Only one in five suburban whites -- and blacks -- share the same worries.

        ''One really has to understand that's the nature of being African-American in our society, that (an African-American) really does see life as less fulfilling and as much more difficult than the average white person does,'' says Tom Smith, director of the general social survey for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, who has been involved in surveys on race since 1973.

        Tracy Washington, a 33-year-old African-American from Oakley, who took part in the Enquirer survey, puts it like this:

        ''Whites don't understand us, and we don't understand them. Whites make the decisions on jobs, education, everything. They have the control, and they call the shots on what really goes on in Cincinnati.''

        Yet blacks and whites don't disagree on everything, the poll shows.

        Nearly equal numbers of whites and blacks -- 9 out of 10 -- are satisfied with their families, their health and their own educations.

        Clear majorities of blacks and whites say that diverse schools are important to a child's development and that mixed-raced neighborhoods are better places to live.

        Three of 10 whites and 4 of 10 blacks are hopeful their lives will improve over the next five years.

        But 6 of 10 whites and blacks think their lives will stay the same or get worse. And just as many of both races think race relations won't improve.

        ''I think we spend too much time trying to reach understanding of each other's perspectives. Getting to know each other's realities is much more important,'' says Cheryl Nunez, director of affirmative action and multicultural affairs at Northern Kentucky University.

        ''We need to challenge the myth of equality and of equal opportunity. Those are all myths. They've never been reality and are not yet. If we can get get around to an acknowledgement of that and stop being blinded by mythology, then we can work on strategies to heal society.''

How wide the divide?

        So is Greater Cincinnati a racist place to be?

        It's a question that elicits strong emotions -- and one that no poll is likely to clearly answer.

        ''Cincinnati has always been a racist town full of closet bigots,'' says Manuel Graves, a 72-year-old African-American from North Avondale who took part in the survey. ''Some whites will pat you on the back with one hand and stab you with the other.''

        Says Mari Avedissian, a white Madeira resident: ''Cincinnati is not very cosmopolitan, but it's not the most racist city I've ever lived in. One-on-one I don't think race is an issue for most blacks or whites. For the most part, I think there are only a certain few on both sides that propagate mistrust and hostility between the races.''

        Mason-Dixon pollster Larry Harris, who coordinated the poll with the Enquirer, says race problems are no different here than anyplace else.

        ''Cincinnati shares with the rest of the nation the problems associated with racism,'' he says. ''There is racism, certainly in Cincinnati. And there's racism in every community in the country.''

        Tom Smith, at the University of Chicago, says racism isn't often evident in poll questions that specifically ask about racial attitudes. When asked how often they socialize with people of another race, people tend to overstate their contacts because that's the politically correct thing to do, he says.

        In the Enquirer poll, people were asked to agree or disagree with this statement: ''I would welcome a person of another race to move into my neighborhood.'' Ninety-three percent of whites, and 96 percent of blacks, agreed.

        Do racists make up the 7 percent of whites who disagreed? Mr. Smith says those respondents might have other reasons for answering as they did. Maybe, he says, they believe the neighborhood is already too crowded, or that overall, the neighborhood would be unfriendly.

        Better indications of racism, Mr. Smith says, tend to come out in non-racial questions. Questions about crime, for instance, might bring out an all-blacks-are-criminals sentiment.

        Mr. Smith cites a question in the Enquirer survey that might be a good measure of whether Cincinnati is a racist place.

        People were asked to agree or disagree with this statement: ''To give every child a good education, state government should adopt a different form of school funding that uses money from wealthy school districts to help poor school districts.'' Someone might hear this question: Should we shift money from white districts to black districts?

        In the Enquirer poll, 81 percent of blacks and 63 percent of whites agreed with the statement. The answers show clear differences in black and white perspectives, but they are not polar opposites.

        ''The high level of agreement certainly doesn't indicate that,'' Mr. Smith says. ''It's clear they (whites and blacks) are both on the same side.''

        Whites and blacks agreed on other issues in the poll as well, including the value of diversity in schools, neighborhoods and the workplace.

Discrimination endures

        Whether discrimination occurs as a daily fact of life depends on one's perspective. Answers to a number of poll questions show just how different those perspectives can be.

        While 44 percent of blacks ''strongly agree'' their local police practice racial profiling, 41 percent of whites ''strongly disagree'' that police stop people simply because of their race.

        Likewise in the workplace: 69 percent of whites ''strongly disagree'' that minorities have fewer opportunities for job assignments and promotions, while 35 percent of blacks ''strongly agree'' and 44 percent ''somewhat agree.''

        Who's right? William Bailey, a white Price Hill resident, has ridden with Cincinnati police and has watched how they treat city residents as part of a community watch program. He says officers focus on what the person does, not what he looks like.

        ''I've never witnessed any one group of people being treated any different than any other group,'' he says. ''It's the infraction that makes a police officer pull someone over.''

        Courtney Wynn, a 19-year-old African American college student from Westwood, says blacks aren't as bad off as they often think.

        ''As far as I'm concerned, it's all in some black folks' minds,'' Ms. Wynn says. ''Some folks assume just because they are black, they are not going to have anything, and that is why they don't set goals or work to achieve them.

        ''Blacks have opportunities, they just don't take advantage of them,'' she says. ''They may have to work harder than whites, but we can get ahead.''

        Vickie Sanford, a white Mason resident, says she's less likely to come downtown since the April riots, even though she and her husband often enjoyed taking in dinner and a show. Her decision, she says, has nothing to do with race.

        ''I have no desire because of the risk of random violence,'' she says. ''It has nothing to do with skin color because I know some white areas that are experiencing high crime and violence, and I don't feel comfortable driving through those areas, either.''

        Some whites agree with the depth of discrimination described by blacks.

        ''Whites think the situation is better than it really is,'' says Fred Watts, a retired factory manager living in Lebanon. ''I've been in management a good bit of my life, and I've seen some of the things that go on in the workplace and people's attitudes. I think white people do tend to see it as being better than it really is.''

        Georgia Stockman, a white payroll administrator from Amelia, blames the news media for exaggerating race problems. Every local news story she reads in the paper or sees on TV is somehow tied back to the death of Timothy Thomas and the April riots, she says.

        ''I think the news is keeping all this racial stuff up in the air,'' she says. ''I think there are a lot of nice black people out there who are getting a raw deal because of it.''

Prospects for change

        The numbers and depth of some of the divisions in black and white perspectives suggest that improving race relations will be a daunting task in Cincinnati.

        The survey seems to indicate that neither blacks nor whites are optimistic that real change will happen soon.

        Looking back, half of all whites and half of blacks say the quality of life in Greater Cincinnati has ''stayed the same'' over the past five years.

        Looking forward, nearly two-thirds of both races believe life will either stay the same or deteriorate in the next five.

        ''When blacks are talking about there being improvement, they're talking about improvement from a situation that's pretty bad, and whites are talking about improvement from a situation that's pretty good,'' says Mr. Smith, of the University of Chicago.

        The ability of city government to deal with race problems doesn't meet with overwhelming confidence, either.

        Half of city whites are satisfied with the leadership shown by Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken during the April unrest, but just a quarter of city blacks feel the same way.

        More than half of city whites believe the mayor's commission on race -- Cincinnati CAN -- will find ways to improve race relations. But fewer than half of city blacks feel that way.

        ''I don't think we have a strong enough leader on either side that can discuss this,'' says Christina Sommer, a white resident of Stonelick in Clermont County. ''I think it takes a man or a woman with charisma that will go out and put themselves on the line and will try to communicate.''

        Tara Skelton, 20, a black student living in Lincoln Heights, says, ''I wish all this race stuff out there would cease. But there's so much hatred out there, it's ridiculous.''

        Jane Lampe, a white printing plant worker who lives in Bond Hill, says she's not certain about the future, either.

        ''You can't force somebody to like somebody else. You just can't,'' she says. ''People have to learn you don't treat other people like crud.''

        MONDAY: Law Enforcement From racial profiling to police professionalism, blacks see problems where whites do not.

        What do results of the Enquirer poll say to you? Please send your reactions to: Race Poll, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202. Or e-mail:

ONLINE EXTRA: Complete poll results and PDF of the report
- Races See Two Cincinnatis
About this series
How this poll was done
Tell us what you think
Poll reflects attitudes, defines problems
Subtle racism gets under blacks' skin
City combines best, worst of North, South
Tensions hurt potential for growth