Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Looking Back, Going Forward

As far back as I can remember I have found myself repeatedly at points of cultural confluence. As a consequence I have been blessed with an understanding that the black community has never been monolithic, even when we were largely united around certain broad public policy goals like ending American apartheid and promoting equal opportunity. Or celebrating heroes like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.

Yesterday I was speaking with my youngest daughter about the radical shift that occurred in Cleveland’s Glenville area when my family relocated here from segregated Washington DC in the mid-fifties. Cleveland was still a high-energy town back then. Unbeknownst to practically all of us, the city was just past its high-water population of 914,808 and about to undergo severe constriction in size and stature.

Much of the town’s energy continued to come from its status as a haven for immigrants and refugees. The renowned Cultural Gardens were less than a block from my neighborhood elementary school and offered endless out-of-school lessons in geography and history. Many a weekend, as we rode to Saturday choir rehearsal or Sunday worship, we passed Lithuanians, Albanians, Italians, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, and others dressed in native garb celebrating or commemorating Louis Kossuth or some other hero.

These experiences helped me to understand that the white community wasn’t monolithic either. I never thought all white folk were alike. I learned that Dutch didn’t care much for Germans; that many western Europeans looked at their East European brethren with disdain; that Turks and Armenians were a combustible combination; that there was historical enmity between Chinese and Japanese. Eventually I came to appreciate that Caucasians [and some Latinos!] didn’t even become white until they emigrated to the United States.

Close to home, as black people were migrating to Cleveland from the hostile regimes of Alabama and Georgia to presumed meccas like Hough and Central and Kinsman, the white folks — with names like Abt, Mishny, Negenborn, Blankenship — were fleeing to Euclid, South Euclid, and Mayfield Heights.

Of course, I didn’t understand any of the social forces at the time, even as I strove to comprehend the lynching of Emmett Till in mysterious Mississippi. What I came to appreciate later was that there was an establishment in this town that sought to constrain the movement of black people and to profit from that constraint. The strategic arenas were political, economic and social. The battlefields were schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.

In little more than a decade, Cleveland would become the first major city in America to elect a black mayor. This fact for a time seemed to cement the city’s national reputation as progressive, consistent with the civic slogan “best location in the nation.”

But Carl Stokes’ 1967 electoral victory — historic and transformative as it was — actually masked the deep conservatism of both Cleveland’s white and black leadership. Cleveland’s Republicans, for example, were among Barry Goldwater’s staunchest supporters in 1964. And the evidence seems clear, despite the puppet political theater of the 1980s and 1990s, that ethnic-based leaders shook hands around political arrangements that protected interest groups at devastating cost to civic spirit and growth.

For reasons that are primarily historic and systemic, many of this area’s challenges — in housing, education, health, public welfare, criminal justice — have their greatest and deepest manifestations in the county’s blackest areas. Our communal failure to address our divisions honestly is a major factor in our ongoing urban crisis.

The good news is that as the remnants of old-style local leaders — Dimora, Hagan, Forbes, Pinkney, Voinovich — fade from prominence, Greater Cleveland at last has a chance to redefine itself in the public arena. Some of the new leaders are on suburban ballots this year, while others are likely to appear before the decade is out. We will be looking at a few of these bright lights in the next couple of weeks.

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At the end of yesterday’s post I mentioned that I would be on Civic Commons radio today talking about the mischief politicians sometimes seek to create with confusing ballot language. If you missed my dulcet dynamite you can hear the podcast here.

The core of the program is a discussion about ballot initiatives—their language, intent and affect on political behavior — hosted by Dan Moulthrop and Noelle Celeste. Featured guests include Jeff Rusnak, a well-respected local political strategist, and Daniel Coffey, political scientist and a Research Fellow at the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

The Civic Commons was created last year with a $3 million Knight Foundation grant. Its mission is to educate, engage and empower citizens to be involved and active in strengthening the community using civic journalism, public engagement and social media. Moulthrop is curator of the conversation for the Commons, which describes itself as social media for stuff that matters.

One of CC’s most important issues is to increase northeast Ohio’s collective understanding of our global society. A key initiative in that regard focuses on the Middle East, which is more than a notion for any of us to understand. If your interests, like mine, skew to that sort of thing, check out this podcast, where Neda Zawarhi of Cleveland State University and Pete Moore of Case Western University, both members of the Northeast Ohio Consortium for Middle East Studies, discuss events in the Middle East. You can also hear Case Western Professor Dr. Ramez Islambouli talk about how his students perceive the Islamic world.

The Civic Commons podcast is a regional effort over the sixteen county Northeast Ohio region.  Its podcast is a dynamic half-hour public affairs program that features more citizen voices and  fewer talking heads. It airs Tuesday afternoons at 12:30 on 88.7 FM/WJCU, University Heights and Tuesday evenings at 7:30 on 88.5/WYSU, Youngstown. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or listen to it on Stitcher Smart Radio. (Download iTunes or Stitcher)

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John Ettorre said...

Nicely done on the podcast, RTA.

Richard said...

Thank you, my friend.
It was a fun learning experience for me.