Monday, February 19, 2007

When White America
Catches a Cold, Blacks
Catch a Pneumonia

Yesterday, I sent my friend Mansfield Frazier word of the BET study of which I wrote yesterday, which pegged Cleveland as the worst city among 22 for black people to live. Within hours, he sent me back one of his characteristically eloquent essays on the topic, which brought the issue to life in ways I could never hope to do. Mansfield is an accomplished writer, activist and thinker. A couple of years ago, I wrote about him here. With his permission, I'm publishing his essay in its entirety.

Rock bottom — once again

By Mansfield B. Frazier

The last time conducted a study on the "Best Cities for Black Families" was six years ago. That is until February 15 when it released another study of 22 cities around the nation with significant Black populations. Cleveland was on the list, albeit at the bottom of it — which should surprise no one. We’ve consistently brought up the rear when comparisons of relative wealth and quality of life are made between cities around the country, so why should it be any different when a Black newsgathering organization looks at the statistics?

The new study “looked at 25 categories, such as income, home ownership, unemployment poverty rates, single-parent homes, education levels, illiteracy, crime rates, per-pupil spending, in-state college tuition costs, teen pregnancy rates, AIDS rates, infant mortality, low birth weight, home values, cost of living and Black-owned businesses.” The statisticians then attached a value to each category, weighting some more heavily than others. They also interviewed “residents and other experts in those cities.” Reading the survey I wondered why statistics such as the incidence of police brutality and the probability of dying as a result of a confrontation with a Cleveland police officer weren’t included, since these figures certainly impact on the quality of life for Blacks in a major way. Interestingly, at the end of each of the articles about the cities at the top of the list a prescriptive was put forth in regards to what those locales needed to do to improve their quality of life; buy no such suggestions were made for Cleveland. Are we that bad ... so far gone no one even has one single idea in regards to how we can get better?

Charlotte, NC came in first in the study, and Columbus, which came in first in the study done six years ago, came in at number two this time. So, obviously if we want to find our own solutions we should look at what made those two locations rank one and two and then try to emulate what city fathers there did, right? If only it were so easy, so pat. It’s not.

It’s been said that when White America catches a financial cold, Black America catches pneumonia. Well, Greater Cleveland, along with most other rustbelt cities that relied heavily on industries such as steel and autos, has had economic sniffles for decades, or so it seems. However, it would be interesting to see where Cleveland (or the region for that matter) would rank on the wealth scale if African-Americans were removed from the statistics. In other words, what would the area poverty picture look like if only Whites were considered? No one wants to do that study simply because of its potential to tell us some things about ourselves and our region that we really don’t want to know. Simply put (and it doesn’t take much of a study), poverty in Cleveland by-and-large has a Black or Brown face. And, with that being the case, how much of a part does institutionalized racism play in the equation? And, further, what do we do about it?

There is a connection between the cancers of poverty and racism. If a person has cancer but their doctor makes a misdiagnoses and prescribes medication that is designed to treat some other aliment that person will, in all probability, succumb to the ravages of the disease. This is analogous to the situation we are currently faced with in Cleveland.

When we were designated the poorest city in the country a few years ago a summit on poverty was hastily convened, fingers were pointed at the suspected causes of our lowly ranking, lofty and impassioned speeches were made, and subcommittees were formed to study the issues and report back with solutions. However, the imitative soon lost the head of steam generated by the headlines and things went back to normal... normal, in the case of poverty, being benign neglect.

And the exact same thing will most probably occur despite the BET study. The headlines will soon just be distant memories that once disturbed us ... but not quite enough to actually do anything in terms of confronting the problem. That, you see, would take a critical examination of the society that has spawned the poverty and lowly ranking in question — and critical self-examination is something we Americans really don’t have much stomach for; it’s too painful and dredges up issues we would prefer left undisturbed. So, we will continue in our failure to successfully address the problem of poverty because, as in the case of the mistreated cancer, we will fail to accurately diagnose one of the root causes of that poverty.

By way of example: I have a couple of fairly well educated, progressive, young white acquaintances who continually move from job to job in Greater Cleveland as they try to find themselves ... along with their “dream” job. Firstly, they note that their similarly educated black friends do not have the same mobility as they do, and, secondly, that the reason for this is there are a great many companies in the area that they have worked at that have never hired a black person — not one ... and by all indications never intend to do so. Institutionalized racism is the culprit, with the thinking being ... “we’ve never done it in the past, so why should we begin to do it now?”

Another tale: I ran into a friend of mine the other day and he sadly informed me that he had recently sold the very expensive new dump truck that he had purchased upon his early retirement as a bus driver for RTA a few years ago. He had been so proud of the fact that he had become a small businessman and was providing part-time employment for a couple of his nephews. “They just wouldn’t treat the black drivers fairly,” he lamented, with tears almost coming into his eyes he was so angry, referring to the dispatchers and jobbers. “They always gave us the worse runs, where we had to drive the longest distances, which burned up all of our profits in diesel fuel. They kept all of the best short runs for the white boys. If they would have just switched off a quarter of the time, just given me a fair shake a couple of times a week I could have made a go of it and stayed in business.” My friend is O.K. financially but his two young nephews just joined the ranks of the unemployed, perhaps soon to be in the ranks of the impoverished, and then, God forbid, maybe in the ranks of the criminal. How does that old hamburger commercial go? “You gotta eat!”

One last example of institutionalized racism is what has become known in Black circles as “The Princeton Study.” A. June 17, 2005 article in the New York Times, entitled “Race a Factor in Job Offers for Ex-Convicts,” also came to another conclusion: Not only did white men with prison records receive far more offers for entry-level jobs in New York City than black men with identical records, they even received more job offers than black men who have never in their entire lives been arrested. Go figure. The double-blind study, which was done by a pair of Princeton University professors, has been replicated in Milwaukee with the same results, and I suspect that it could be replicated here in Cleveland if we were not so afraid of uncomfortable truths it would present us with.

Sure, lack of education, goals and motivation — along with a myriad of other factors — on the part of poor people plays a significant role in the poverty paradigm, but I submit that if more real, genuine opportunities existed, then more minorities would get themselves qualified to fill the slots. So, while we attempt to attack the beast of poverty with education and other remedies, let us also — without the finger pointing of revisiting who did what to whose ancestor — attack one of poverty’s other significant root causes: Institutionalized racism in the job market. If we as a city and region fail to do so then we will wind up as dead as the patient I cited earlier, for racism truly is a cancer on all of society ... not just on black Americans. If we take action now perhaps the next time BET does a survey Cleveland won’t be at the bottom of the list. Failure to take action will guarantee that we will remain mired on the economic killing floor.

Frazier is a freelance writer and journalist who resides in the Cleveland community of Hough with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.


At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not quite sure what Frazier means by "a critical examination of the society that has spawned the poverty and lowly ranking in question." Poverty and its causes and consequences have in fact been closely studied. Second, I understand the basis for his point about incentive--why get trained or educated when no one will hire me--but it also seems dangerously defeatist. Anyone could make that rationalization. But one could just as easily rationalize that the chances for employment increase with training and education. As for institutional racism, it certainly exists, but there are still plenty of companies out there competing with one another to hire blacks who are educated and experienced. This in itself creates mobility opportunities. although most everything associated with battling poverty is elusive, progress is possible. one objective--hardly sexy or new and certainly challenging and even quixotic--should be to instill a sense of importance and urgency in all kids about the importance of education. it's just one piece of a craggy, expansive jigsaw, but it should be a daily goal nonetheless.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Very well said. I'd have to agree with most of that.

At 5:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

btw, as fu to the 25 january post, the NYT SunMag, 18 February, presented an engaging illuminating profile of Toyota. Odd that author did not tip hat to Halberstam, given the reprise qualities of the piece, but nevertheless a great read.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for the reminder about that piece, the hard copy of which I've set aside for a time when I have a solid hour of quiet to enjoy it and reflect on it. You'll find the piece in question here:

Your reference to David Halberstam is no doubt about his seminal book "The Reckoning," on the American auto industry and how it lost its way against foreign competitors. But remember that that book is now more than 20 years old, so the story has changed considerably since then (or maybe not so much). But then, his stuff does tend to stand up over time, doesn't it?

At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

actually, gitner retells some of what H reported. hence my use of the word "reprise." toyota's story really hasn't changed that much. that's part of the point. they don't strive for short-term gratification. rather they are methodical in their obsession with always improving the product. some great lessons in their approach as (re)described by gitner...

At 3:01 PM, Anonymous Holliday Vann, Author said...

I'm not at all surprised by what Frazier has written. In some ways, it is the story of my black-and-educated life. I touch on some of the same issues in my book, "When Sexy Came Black to Cleveland." The difference here is that the heroine of the story is undereducated (perhaps 'sexy' wouldn't have had to come back to Cleveland if she were more educated, and therefore, less desperate--financially). And even though I wrote the story, I, personally, could not imagine the struggles that someone like this character might face on a day-to-day basis. Thank God for the parents that I had. Great article! Thanks for including it, John.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for your comment. It sounds like I ought to convene a lunch with you and Mansfield. I think you'd enjoy getting to know each other, and I'd enjoy just listening to and learning from your high-octane conversation.

At 10:53 AM, Anonymous CrisisMaven said...

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