An opportunity for racial justice that cannot pass unheeded

Mayor John Cranley, Dr. O'Dell Owens, Dwight Tillery, Eileen Cooper Reed, Sean Rugless, and the Rev. Dr. Damon Lynch Jr. speak at Urban League news conference Monday releasing report The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: Two Cities.

Mayor John Cranley, Dr. O’dell Owens, Dwight Tillery, Eileen Cooper Reed, Sean Rugless, and the Rev. Dr. Damon Lynch Jr. speak at Urban League news conference Monday releasing report The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: Two Cities.

By Mark Curnutte

AVONDALE — OK, Cincinnati, let’s see what we’ve got.

For much of 2015, poverty — child poverty — has been the cause celebre with the city’s media: Television station and website and its urban affairs reporter, Lucy May, have focused on it. A television competitor, Local 12, is now in the mix. It wanted me on its morning newscast Monday to talk about a small slice of our report, The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: Two Cities, that addresses child poverty.

The Cincinnati Enquirer in the spring published a voyeuristic essay on a poor family so badly damaged that county social workers took the children out of the home. (As a former Enquirer social justice reporter, I wrote as long ago as 2011 about the city’s embarrassingly high child poverty rate.) Cincinnati CityBeat published a contemplative essay Aug. 26 that showed how the city’s economic fault line largely follows its racial fissure.

On Monday, the Greater Cincinnati Urban League released its first comprehensive analysis of Cincinnati’s black community since 1995. The State of Black Cincinnati 2015 shows how little has changed economically and socially for African-Americans here in two decades.

Three of four African-American children under age 6 in our city our growing up in poverty. Poverty for a household of three in this country is $20,090 a year, or living on $6,697 a year, or $18.35 a day. Living at 150 percent of poverty doesn’t provide much more.

Still, stop and think about what it means to start life as an acutely poor child. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health problems, and they reach adolescence with poorer school attendance and lower reading and math scores. They are prone to increased distractibility and rates of grade failure. Poor children more than children in middle-class and affluent families face greater likelihood of developing behavioral and emotional problems. The effects are long-term and follow them into adulthood: lower occupational status and wages, poorer health and deficient memory function.

So, it’s no wonder, according to some number-crunching by The Enquirer in its Sunday story, that conditions in Cincinnati’s black community are getting worse.

— The poverty rate for blacks in Cincinnati today is 35.7 percent, up from 34 percent in 1995, the last time the local Urban League did a State of Black Cincinnati report.

— In terms of median household income regionally, African-Americans today earn 42 cents for every dollar earned in white households, down from 49 cents in 1995.

— The Urban League Two Cities report shows that median household income for blacks is $24,000, compared to $57,000 for whites.

Yet the response from many outsiders often employs a cliché, and not a creative one at that: Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Those are often the same people, most of them white, whom, citing another cliché, are the ones standing on third base thinking they hit the triple. No, you were born on third.

All the while, The Banks booms, out of reach economically of most African-Americans. The makeover of Over-the-Rhine is dramatic, yet rising housing costs have driven out many long-standing black residents. The “private” developer 3CDC is flush with public money yet comfortably out of reach of media scrutiny. It had no plan for the displaced poor, except to overpay to build extravagant new homeless shelters to get that population away from Washington Park. Here’s a thought: How about creating a 3CDC-type organization, pumping it full of tax dollars, and charging it with reducing poverty among the city’s black preschoolers?

Speaking `truth to power’

At a news conference this morning at the Urban League, an esteemed panel — some of them authors of report essays — addressed the League report’s findings.

To his credit, unlike some of his predecessors, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley is not in denial about his city’s racial and economic divide. The city, he said, created an office of economic inclusion. An effort to institutionalize efforts to increase use of black- and female-owned businesses on city projects will go to council soon but will likely face legal challenges. Cranley said Monday black business contracts with the city from doubled from current 2 percent to 4 percent and are on the verge of almost doubling again. His goal is 15 percent.

The mayor praised the Urban League for its years of steady service in running industry-leading job-readiness and training programs, calling the organization “part of the solution.” He went on to praise the Greater Cincinnati Urban League for its Two Cities reports by having the courage “to speak truth to power.”

Dr. O’dell Owens, president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and former Hamilton County Coroner, has always understood the interconnectedness of economics, health, education and social disparities afflicting the poor and minority communities. Author of the Two Cities foreword, Owens said, “We have too many poor children. This report highlights that we are at a critical point.”

Former Cincinnati School Board President Eileen Cooper Reed noted the high numbers of poor children in the city. “And,” she said, “then they start school,” illuminating the challenge public schools face.

Former Cincinnati Mayor Dwight Tillery, the city’s first popularly elected black mayor in 1991, founded and is president of the Center for Closing the Health Gap — a national leader in showing how economics and other social determinants negatively affect the health of African-Americans.

Like Tillery, speaker Sean Rugless quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: There cannot be social justice without economic justice. “Until we have an economy in which all people grow, we will be a second-tier city,” said Rugless, president and chief executive of the African American Chamber of Greater Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky.

The Rev. Dr. Damon Lynch Jr., pastor since 1970 of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, Carthage, preaching to a choir of racial justice believers, nonetheless pulled no punches. He said he knows he is a “token” black on a number of boards but since he is there he is going to speak up. He expressed frustration that qualified African-Americans are not in the “pipeline” for top leadership positions at Procter & Gamble and other large, influential employers.

He said Cincinnati was indeed “diverse, but not inclusive. … We say we want to grow and prosper, but what we say is not what we practice.”

Donne Jones Baker, President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, parent of the Greater Cincinnati Urban League and Miami Valley Urban League, Dayton, compared Cincinnati to a human body that says it is healthy but has a limb with the life-threatening condition gangrene — medically, dead tissue caused by an infection or lack of blood flow.

“We are creating a perpetual underclass of people,” Baker said.

The Two Cities report, a comprehensive 164 pages, is available at, the local League’s website. In the first nine hours it was available, 245 copies were downloaded. Two Miami University professors want to use the book as a classroom text in sociology and urban affairs courses.

What’s next? Action without distraction

The report creates A Call to Action that invites anyone who wants to be involved to email the League at The goal is to match volunteers’ interests with opportunities to serve while a Guiding Coalition — already in place under Baker’s direction — comes up with a focused plan.

A dozen people have written, wanting to help. Others, similar to comments posted on stories at One man wrote to “Blacks feel whites owe them because we made them slaves.”

A writer described as a “Caucasian father who raised his two children,” wrote: “It is not the job of others to help those that are unwilling to help themselves.”

Other email writers say that black people should stop having children and that black men should parent more and hustle less. Hard to father, I say, when you’re spending inequitably longer sentences in prison for lesser crimes than whites. The state’s population is 12 percent African-American, yet Ohio’s prison population 45 percent black. Because of economic stress many families are forced to live in survival mode, living only for the moment or the day at hand, unable to plan.

So many people still want to blame the poor for being poor, or poor African-Americans for being poor and black.

These comments discourage me, but only for a fleeting moment. They serve, at times, to keep the flame fanned inside. Then I let them pass without a second notice.

I’d invite fellow whites who have little or no contact with African-Americans, other than the stereotypical reports in media that reinforce their narrow view of the world, to come to the Urban League. I’d like them to meet the young black men and women — and those who are not so young any more — who are working third-shift jobs and then going to class all day here at the League. I’d like them to see the number of fathers who work overnight and then walk to South Avondale Elementary every afternoon to pick up their children. Meet the contrite returning citizens determined to right personal wrongs and rebuild lives into sources of pride for their children.

Walk with me the six blocks out our front door down Prospect Place and the six blocks back. You’ll meet hard-working people who want the same things you do: a job, a fair wage, healthcare, good education and a chance at college for their children, safety, security as they age. Sit on a porch on a hot summer evening with them and listen. Stop judging. Your loss.

Here’s where I’ve landed, 22 years after my life changed personally and professionally for the better in 1993. That’s the year I wrote a sprawling series for The Cincinnati Enquirer, “A Polite Silence,” an examination of race relations here. I was the minority for several months, spending large amounts of time in predominantly black churches, private homes, professional groups. The learning curve was sharp and sometimes difficult.

Sadly, not much has changed economically or in terms of social progress for African-Americans here since. It appears, though, that the hearts of many more white people have hardened. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the country has blown past us in vital areas of diversity and meaningful inclusion.

Of the more than 500 interviews I did for the “Police Silence” series, one stands out as most memorable. A white Methodist minister, explaining his denomination’s efforts to include more African-Americans and increase sensitivity to the economic and social divide, said, “Racism is a terrible sin. It is no small sin. Prejudice and racism are grave insults to the one God who created us all.”

Few things have ever made so much sense to me in so many ways: spiritually, for sure, intellectually, morally, as a citizen. The civil rights movement is not over.

So here we stand, collectively, at another point of swelling opportunity. Race and poverty have risen to become the issues of the day in Cincinnati. We’ve never had so much information and data that clearly shows our interdependence — how we won’t reach our potential as a desirable city and region if a whole group of people are systematically held down.

Those of us — white, black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever — those of us who know better and understand non-black privilege in this country, we have to lead the effort here. I’m not talking about just white privilege. I am talking about the privilege that comes with not being black in American society: that large unopened can of unearned mulligans, benefits of the doubt, and infinite second chances afforded us simply because of the color of our skin. They’re real.

We can’t be distracted by the noise of naysayers. We have to keep our eyes on the prize. We, in engaging in this still unresolved fight for equality, are on the right side of history. We’ve been given sight.

The effort to improve the quality of life for all in Cincinnati will take everyone of us who recognize the injustice. As Donna Jones Baker writes in her Two Cities executive summary, in quoting an African proverb, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”

Mark Curnutte is Vice President of Marketing, Communications & Key Initiatives at the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio. He edited and contributed writing and photography to The State of Black Cincinnati 2015: Two Cities. The 164-page report is available free of cost at

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