Are Cincinnati’s Race Problems Overblown?

Are Cincinnati’s race problems overblown? It all depends on who you ask.

I recently hosted a team of about 20 high school students from Spartanburg, SC, who were here to help me canvass the city, take surveys, and get a better grasp on the spiritual climate in Cincinnati. I made the surveys and specifically asked questions regarding race.

When asked to describe Cincinnati in one word, one lady named Mrs. Owens responded “racist.” She also said racism is the greatest problem facing the community. Margaret is African American and she said the racial problems in this city are 98 out of 100. Another African American man said 89 out of 100.

When white folks were asked the same question, they were clearly more optimistic. Bethany said racial tension is 20 out of 100, Carol gave it a 25, Matthew a 60, and so on.

I have asked that question also to many of the local people that I have met here, and the white folks all tend to think that the problem is “overblown” and the so-called riots were a “joke.” Media hype and sensationalism, they say.

Regarding the riots, Kweisi Mfume said that the riots were caused by, “more than anything else, 20 to 25 years of neglect, of frustration, of profiling, of a second-class feeling in Cincinnati. White citizens and black citizens for all that time have been pleading for somebody to take a look at what was going on there, to respond. That didn’t happen. … All of this just bubbled over, but not because of this one incident, because of a number of incidents like this over the years.”

The answer to the perception disparity can possibly be attributed to a collective refusal to acknowledge the problem. Sylvester Monroe says that we have a “growing national proclivity for avoiding even the discussion of race. But by shunning racial issues and ignoring history — including fairly recent history — we make America’s most intractable problem that much more difficult to solve.”

Here’s the landscape: most people avoid discussions of race. It belongs in the junk drawer of untouchables such as politics and religion; the feelings are just too raw. Christians have outsourced any racial ministry or even discussion to liberals who deny the Bible and see racial equality in the same light as gay rights.

Here’s the bottom line: white people don’t have to feel intimidated in a room full of other whites. White people don’t feel targeted by the police. White people live in the majority culture and issues of race can be sandwiched in between discussions of our favorite films and whether or not NAFTA is a good idea.

For black folks, it is a daily part of their lives. There is no escaping the fact that they live in as minorities in a culture where they tangibly experience racial hostilities.

So let’s cut the crap. White people can say racial issues are overblown because we have the luxury of ignoring it. African Americans live it everyday, and the ones I’ve met in Cincinnati universally agree that there’s a major problem.

Do we not have a responsibility as Christians to address this?

  1. It’s an encouragement and a blessing to read your thoughts. It’s the ugly truth but the mere fact that you see these things as problems that need to be addressed means that you are becoming part of the solutions rather than the problems. Clearly we as believers in a God who created the nations have an obligation to show our God to the nations in a way that expresses our worth in His eyes and most of all, His beauty. It’s an encouragement that you’ve taken on this endeavor.

  2. Maybe I’m a blind white man, but I don’t agree that it’s so bad for African Americans. I’m not disputing various facts you listed, but I don’t believe that those who truly try their hardest face so many because of the color of their skin. I believe a lot of the problem has to do with what kind of encouragement society gives blacks (and other minorities). We have black-only scholarships, affirmative action plans, etc, that are not encouraging more work ethic, but rather, obtaining the same goals as a white person through lesser means.

    Now, I don’t want to sound racist here, I’m a Christian and truly want everyone to be happy. I do sympathize for African Americans and I understand that they have a bit of a harder time because negative statistics like crime rates affect the judgment of police and general public, however, I don’t feel this problem is going to be solved by patting hands and saying “It’s going to be okay.” Prayer is a starting point, and a strong one at that, but I feel that if there was more positive encouragement for minorities to work hard; apply for non-racial scholarships, not only hope that affirmative action will ensure them a job, etc, their ‘social appearance’ will look better and times won’t be as tough. I don’t condone racism because I don’t condone the malicious treatment of ANY individual, be them white, black, gay, straight, male, female, and therefore I believe in equality. TRUE equality. Not “only people of this race or this or that can apply for this job/scholarship/loan/grant”.

    So should we as Christians help to fight this problem? Let’s help PEOPLE because they are PEOPLE, not because they are black.

  3. I think the Cincinnati race problem here is overblown. I say that as an Irish-German American Jew that grew up in a biracial family primarily outside of Cincinnati and mostly on a ultra-diverse/liberal college town. Thus, I’m not some whitebread middle-class suburban kid that is unaware of the water he grew up swimming in.That being said, Maybe overblown is the wrong word. I’d say it an issue of misdiagnosis. What appears to be an race problem is actually something else. It is more of an issue of socio-economic class than anything. It just like Prof. Anthony Bradley (yeah, he is black) writes:

    “College graduates choose relationships with other college graduates and therefore worship with college graduates (regardless of race). Republicans tend to find other Republicans. Black middle-class churches are just as segregated as white middle-class churches. The black middle-class does not worship with “ghetto” blacks just as the white middle-class does not worship with “white trash.” We have confused racial divisions with what are essentially class divisions. Skin color-based separation seems obvious, but race actually masks our real divisions based on class.”

    He then goes on to explain why racial reconciliation ministry are just medicating a symptom of the real problem:

    “A truly integrated church will be one with multiple classes, followed by multiple races. If a church has multiple classes, depending on surrounding demographics, it will likely have multiple races. Seeking solutions to the racial divide is only medicating the symptoms of the real disease: We only want to be around people like ourselves, first by class, followed by race…”

    “Choosing relationships across class lines will change the racial makeup of our wedding photos, prom pictures, vacation photos, and class pictures, to a socio-economic kaleidoscope reflecting people from every tribe, nation, and tongue…”

    “Race is not the Church’s biggest problem. Our biggest problem is loving and befriending people who are not like us. Weekly meetings, conferences, and programs have failed because they are too simplistic. Now is the time for the Church to demonstrate radical relationships of inconvenience.”

    I’d like to a survey of how many Cincinnatians cross the class divided.

  4. Michael

    Thanks for commenting! I agree with you that much of the racial tension that exists does so on an economic level. Issues of race cannot be sufficiently addressed in an economic vacuum. Race and poverty go hand in hand, unfortunately. That being said, imagine a suburban black young man with corn rows and baggy pants walking into a CD store. Do you think he might be viewed with suspicion?

    You mentioned that you are a “Irish-German American Jew that grew up in a biracial family.” If I may say so, that has nothing to do with it, because you look white. You are not viewed as an Irish-German American Jew that grew up in a biracial family, you are viewed as a white man. The other stuff is just what’s “under the hood,” so to speak.

    The problem is that we are drawing conclusions based on appearance, when there’s a real person underneath that skin, who may be poor, maybe not. He may be a responsible citizen, maybe not. He may love hip-hop, jazz, country, classical, or whatever. Maybe he is a responsible father, maybe not.

    You and I look white and therefore society forms certain expectations based on our appearance. Black folks, because of their appearance, look black and certain expectations are based on that fact.

    In a predominately white culture and society, do you think that both you and a black man would be viewed equally?

    My contention is that you will not.

  5. Chris

    Thanks for commenting. I think you make some very interesting points, but one thing I would challenge you on is the notion that everything is equal for blacks and whites.

    Consider this. The worst public schools in the country tend to be inner city schools where there are a lot of black children and not a lot of money. The best public schools in the country tend to be suburban schools where there is lots of money and wealthier kids go.

    Now, let’s all go to college together. Only the highest test scores get in, only those with the best grades get in. One child is a brilliant African American whose (single) mother never had time to read to him or help him with homework because she had to work two jobs to feed him. This child made average grades, but far below his potential.

    The other child is a white child of average intelligence, but had good Christian parents who availed him to every opportunity to excel. He worked very hard, made good grades, and scored well on tests as a result.

    The problem is this: we can’t measure home conditions and extraordinary circumstances to factor into these situations. But certain people have recognized the problem and provided “assistance” to those who want and need it.

    I recognize and appreciate your desire for fairness. But fair is only fair when all factors are equalized.

  6. Michael,

    I read this and get part of it but a point that really isn’t explored is the “reverse” racsim. It isn’t just mistrust having been conditioned against white people. I have spent a lot of time in both black and white commuities and know that there is EQUAL racism from both parts. I believe that both need addressed, not just placing full responsibility on whites and excusing the responses of others. In addition, I tend to agree with the other commenter – I think that “class” is a huge barrier in people’s lives that carries over into the church.

  7. Ray

    I certainly think that racial prejudice goes both ways, so you’re right on that point. I do not think that the burden should be placed solely on whites either. My contention is that white people are reluctant to acknowledge the problem because they don’t see it and live it every day, like black people do. Racial reconciliation can only take place when all sides involved are willing to say “Yes, there’s a problem here.”

    Thanks for commenting! This is a good discussion…

  8. “That being said, imagine a suburban black young man with corn rows and baggy pants walking into a CD store. Do you think he might be viewed with suspicion?”

    I spent my entire youth as the only white kid out of a group of six friends that were African American. So based upon my experience I’d say it depends. He MIGHT. However, the answer isn’t an absolute yes. To say so would just be silly.

    Also, my point about my family background is that I have an insider’s perspective on racism. Those I love most have suffered from it (I’ve got black and Jewish relatives). Thus, when I say that Cincinnati’s race issue is overblown I don’t say just as another white dude but as someone who had the KKK threaten his uncle’s life for dating a white girl. I know racism when I see it. Much of what is labeled racism is Cincinnati is something totally different.

    “You and I look white and therefore society forms certain expectations based on our appearance. Black folks, because of their appearance, look black and certain expectations are based on that fact.”

    Hhhhmmmm….My turn for a question. Imagine your wife is lost in a strange city. Maybe she is broken down. She sees two men. One is a well dressed and groomed middle-aged black man. The other is a young white dude dressed in baggy pants with corn rolls. Which man would you want your wife to get help from?

  9. Michael

    You mentioned that the label “racism” in Cincinnati is something different than what is usually meant by the term. Would you mind explaining that? I think that would be a good perspective to have because this is the battlefield I have chosen.

    What do you think racism is in Cincinnati?

    As to your question, I’m not sure I can answer it, except to say that the white kid with corn rows may not be too helpful fixing a car. 🙂

  10. I have a question to pose : “When discussions of race come up do we find ourselves unconsciously identifying ourselves as one race and either being defensive/offensive toward the other group or do we identify ourselves as followers of Christ and attempt not to justify either side, but to look at the issue objectively as an outsider?” In other words “Is it us versus them” or is it “us?”
    I ask this because as Christians we all too often fall for the devil’s trick of finding our identity in the world’s labels rather than in Christ. That is not to say that we should ignore our background, but that we should not be so quick to try to be right as much as we should try to see how God can be glorified out of the situation. We are all sinful and no one is innocent, but we should also try to look at it from the perspective who may have an opposing idea and ask “How can we who have opposing ideas be reconciled to the glory of God” rather than “How can I convince him that I’m right?”

  11. Wow — what a batch of great comments going on here! Good conversation to be sure!

    I have grown up several miles from downtown Cincinnati. I have, however, grown up in one of those suburban neighborhoods that are mostly white, so my opinion on the matter is likely of little consequence so far as how I view racism in Cincinnati. What I do want to comment on is prejudice and stereotyping as opposed to full-blown racism.

    I have been working at the Great American Ballpark as a photographer for the past month. I park in Covington and walk across the suspension bridge. Yesterday afternoon, I was walking across the bridge on my way to work and was passing a rather unkempt, baggy clothed, black man. Did I feel more “alert” or “suspicious” than I would have felt passing a white man? Yes. Although not greatly, there was a difference. Still, the question that was asked you earlier is a valid one. Had I been passing a white person who was also unkempt and wearing baggy clothes, I would have felt slightly uncomfortable as well. Whether I would feel more uncomfortable passing the black man I cannot say with certainty, because much of the reaction is subconscious. I do think the appearance that a person chooses (clothing, hygiene, etc) is far more significant than their race, but race certainly does play some factor. I would imagine that I would be slightly more alert, though. And you know what? I absolutely HATE that. Still, I cannot attribute those stereotypes/prejudices to racism.

    Our UofL email accounts get crime alerts rather frequently (during the semesters). Nearly every time the suspects are black males. Now, you can make the point that they are coming from worse financial backgrounds, that they are coming from fewer opportunities to advance themselves. Crime is still crime. It’s wrong, and I am absolutely furious every single time I get one of those emails. Just typing about it now, I feel like shouting. I absolutely hate that the statistic is being perpetuated by other blacks. It should also be noted, however, that they are males.

    I have spent a fair amount of time wandering campus in the middle of the night. I stay in open areas and didn’t stray far from the dorms. Often I was simply going for a walk (usually singing hymns — which can’t be done as freely in the middle of the day), but if I would see a woman who was also out, I made sure to keep plenty of distance from her, even alter my path to ensure that I would not walk right by her. Why? Because statistically, she has more to be concerned about passing by a male than a female. She is absolutely justified in being more alert and cautious when she sees me walking around near campus in the middle of the night.

    Full circle, I feel I am justified in being more alert when passing a poorly dressed, unkempt, black man. Statistically, there is a higher likelihood of a crime from a black man than a white man. What’s more, I do not feel as though having that reaction is a sinful reaction or at all unchristian. When I meet an individual, I judge them on their actions toward me as well as their words, not on skin color or gender or eye color or sports team affiliation or religion. Those personal relationships are where the decision to be racist (or simply cowardly by avoiding the relationships altogether) or to be focused on sharing Christ’s love with all individuals comes into play.

    All of this to get around to commenting on your statement that blacks are more likely to be targeted/watched by the police. Statistically, they should be, should they not? If a policeman is patrolling a neighborhood, and he sees a black man on one side of the street, and a white man on the other, and he can only get a good look at one or the other as he drives past, would it not be a better usage of his time to check the activities of the black man? Is there not a higher likelihood of stopping a crime in action by choosing to check the black man rather than the white man? I’m not saying I’m happy about this at all, or that it’s an ideal, but I see it as an unfortunate truth.

    My main question to you regarding that comment is this: What do you propose the solution ought to be? More specifically, how can we (as white Christians) play a role in healing and changing that? Unfortunately, the only solution I can think of is for the black people committing the crimes to stop. One can argue for putting more money into inner city schools or seeking to help black single mothers, but I truly believe that ANY individual has an opportunity to provide for themselves in this nation (save mental disabilities or severe physical disabilities), and no matter what circumstances a man grows up in, he has a personal choice to make regarding the life he is going to live and the types of decisions he is going to make.

    I do not know how to go about working to change those statistics. What I do know is that every time I meet an individual, I need to strive to view them with an entirely clean slate, void of any bias, and work to ensure that any opinions of that individual that I begin to form are rooted squarely in what they say and what they do and not in the statistics or stereotypes that I acknowledge as saddening truths.

  12. Christopher

    Thank you for commenting on this post. I cannot say what I have to say any better than what Ryan said (the comment above yours). My point in writing this post was to expose the disparity of perceptions of race between white and black people.

    White people think about race when its convenient, or novel, or when they’re faced with a situation such as you described when approaching a black man on the street. Its a natural human impulse to physiologically respond in a certain way when you feel threatened.

    What I find ironic is this: nearly every person who posted here acknowledges that they feel a certain level of threat when placed in uncomfortable situations around people of another race that they don’t trust. Of course, not all black people are threatening, but you have been conditioned by the media or life circumstances to feel threatened around people who look a certain way.

    I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong. But doesn’t it make sense that sense all of us white guys commenting on this post acknowledge feeling threatened by blacks, doesn’t it make sense when blacks feel threatened by whites? And furthermore, doesn’t it make sense that blacks might even feel oppressed because white people have the majority influence and the institutional power to dispose of those things we find threatening?

    Consider this. You, as a part of the majority race, only have to face those threatening situations on occasion, and because you elected to do so. Blacks do not have the choice to avoid whites unless they congregate together in black neighborhoods where they can feel protected.

    Since you have a reason to feel that blacks are more prone to commit a crime, perhaps a black person would have a reason to think that you are more prone to target him for his race?

    This is a lively discussion. Thanks for writing!

  13. “My point in writing this post was to expose the disparity of perceptions of race between white and black people.”

    The accuracy of the “disparity of perception” between white and black folks in Cincinnati should be considered carefully in light of the sample size from which these questions were answered. I’d be up for putting together another set of questions that take in consider other possible variables and asking those questions of a broader sample population.

  14. “White people think about race when its convenient, or novel, or when they’re faced with a situation such as you described when approaching a black man on the street.”

    This is quite the broad statement. I’m all for speaking in generality to get to a point. However, not all white people grew up insulated from race issues in a way that they could merely shelf the subject until they feel it is convenient to discuss.

  15. as valid as all of the above is. and all of it is vaild. there’s still the issue. there’s still Center City Church working to address the issue, and praise God that at some level, some of this mistrust (on both sides) will be broken down. keep it up d.

  16. My Two Cents

    This is a wonderful thread that is being processed within the context of a very Caucasian medium. Religious blogs of the theological bent are dominated my white males. I find that humorous. I hope those of you from Cincinnati will humble yourselves before the Lord and be very careful to help Michael Clary succeed with patience and love. Now on to a few comments of my own…
    I agree with Michael Clary in his diagnosis of a serious problem in American Christianity. Cincinnati happens to be close enough to the Mason/Dixon line that she suffers like a city caught between several vastly different ethnic identities. The Church in Cincinnati looks almost (don’t know the stats) like every other city in the Midwestern U.S. The difference happens to be that several years ago a pressure cooker boiled over in our fair city and through a series of poor choices on the part of city government we are now labeled a city of prejudice. I believe the race problem in Cincinnati is severe. I believe the race problem in Louisville where Michael went to school is bad. Should we expect the race problems in our city to be non-existent when The Church is virtually split in half? I don’t think so. There are several ways to view the “badness” of Cincinnati’s problem. To someone uninvolved in the turmoil that led up to the inner city uprising here the day seemed less like a riot and more like a march of civil unrest with a few incidents of minor disturbance. To a black mother whose child was killed by a white cop… those riots were fierce and well deserved.
    This post has turned into a much larger discussion about how Caucasoid peoples and Negroid peoples interact and why. I would be willing to go further and say that this is more of a discussion of how low-income-post-slavery-displaced-Africans-living-in-the-United States interact socially / religiously with the culture of power. This description helps to break down the separate aspects to our “race” problem. I think “race problem” is a general term that lacks specificity. I would prefer to have a dialogue about what constitutes healthy culture and then seek to employ health than to play the power game of the race dialogue. Finally, I agree that there is a problem in Cincinnati between the various ethnic identities but I want to stay far away from the power game. My hope is not some sweeping corporate answer of reconciliation. My hope is learning to see past my dislike of particular cultural tokens and to befriend people regardless of their color the way Jesus does. Please pray that I would endure the discomfort of bridging cultures the way Christ would have me persevere.

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