Cleveland has its share of race-related problems. But at least it’s willing to talk openly about them.
The city’s Community Relations Board has started a yearlong series of forums on race. “It was a proactive step in relation to the Trayvon Martin shooting,” says Ronnie Dunn, an urban affairs professor at Cleveland State University. “They decided it was best to do something proactively to address issues of race in the city of Cleveland.”
The city does have issues. Cleveland consistently stands uncomfortably near the top in rankings of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas. Incarceration rates tend to track such segregation. The Cleveland area supplies 20 percent of the prisoners in Ohio state penitentiaries, with a major chunk of that number -- fully 79 percent -- coming from just five predominantly African-American neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east side.
Even before the recession, unemployment among African-Americans in Cleveland was near 15 percent. Now, it’s closer to 20 percent, Dunn says. “We deal with race-related issues every day,” says James Hardiman, president of Cleveland’s NAACP branch. “Employment is the big-ticket item.”
No one expects a series of community forums to solve all these problems, but leaders in the black community, as well as those who are Hispanic or come from other groups, have welcomed the city’s eagerness to address them.
Cities that have healthy relations with their minority communities have found that they require an ongoing effort. Talking about race can’t be a one-off event. Instead, it’s a continuing dialogue that not only informs leaders at City Hall about minority group concerns, but allows the city to communicate the logic behind certain policies to the populations most directly affected by them.
“It has to be a very important feature of what you want your community to become,” says former Wichita, Kan., Mayor Bob Knight, who led discussions years ago about race in his city and nationwide as president of the National League of Cities. “It’s just a continual process. It takes more than words, it takes action.”