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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
16 April 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 16

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Oh, Cincinnati!

We cannot put the anguish in Cincinnati behind us until we reflect on the causes of the riots and make difficult personal, societal, and governmental changes.

by Jerome F. Winzig

On this Easter Monday the whole nation should reflect on the causes of last week's civil unrest in Cincinnati, Ohio. We should not assume that what happened in Cincinnati is a local problem. We should not be lulled into thinking there is peace because the riots have stopped. We should not pretend that it can't happen in Minneapolis or St. Louis or Los Angeles, or in many other cities across America.

Reflecting on the anguish of Cincinnati, however, is uncomfortable. It reminds us that our country has problems we are not addressing, that there are neighborhoods dominated by poverty, drugs, and crime. Such reflection requires real listening. It will not satisfy liberals or conservatives, rich or poor, city dwellers or suburbanites, because the causes are complex and are woven into our culture, society, and governmental policies.

There is an immense gulf that separates the daily lives of people in poor inner-city neighborhoods from the lives of people in prosperous city and suburban neighborhoods. That gulf is characterized by misunderstandings on both sides. Scattered in between is the rest of the nation.

Yesterday, for example, Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, and Keith Fangman, head of the Cincinnati police union, debated on ABC's program, "This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts." Fangman and Mfume often seemed to talk right past each other. Mfume's concerns about racial profiling and a feeling of second-class citizenship in Cincinnati were ignored by the police union head. Fangman's concerns about an epidemic of black-on-black violence were not really addressed by Mfume. Fangman countered Mfume's concerns about racial imbalances by pointing out that three of the last five police shootings were done by black officers.

It is unfortunate that Mfume and Fangman seemed to be debating each other, for this is no debate. Instead of scoring points, we need to face some complicated realities. Racial profiling exists everywhere in the nation. Persons of color are stopped far more often than whites for routine traffic violations. Persons of color are suspected of shoplifting far more often than whites. At the same time, in many of our cities the perpetrators -- and the victims -- of crime are disproportionately persons of color.

There are no "sides" in this debate, because both sides are right and wrong about many aspects of the problem. Last month, for example, the U.S. Department of Education reported that less than a third of the nation's fourth-grade students are proficient at reading, and the gap between the best and worst readers is widening. Some were quick to charge that this was because school districts were deliberately focusing their efforts on high achievers, in a "frightening sort of educational Darwinism." Others said that it was very difficult for schools to educate students who were moving from school to school and coping with chaotic family situations.

The reality is that both assertions have some truth to them. Our government and our institutions still do discriminate against persons of color, in spite of years of effort. At the same time, our culture mocks good students, glamorizes criminal behavior, and ridicules family values.

Our governmental policies favor the rich with public funding of stadiums and huge development projects while social programs are cut. At the same time, many of our social programs don't work. Education Secretary Rod Paige says that, "after decades of business-as-usual school reform, too many of our nation's children still cannot read."

We need to question whether some of our commonly-held myths are really true. One myth assumes that police officers fairly and equitably serve and protect the whole community. Yet a few municipalities have discovered that when they really address allegations of racial profiling, their arrest rates go up and crime goes down as police officers go beyond stereotypes to target all criminals regardless of race.

Another myth assumes social security is a safety net that especially helps those on the bottom rungs of our society. Yet demographic information tells us that, because African-Americans have shorter live spans, they get disproportionately less out of social security than whites. Newspaper stories tell us about skid-row winos who are classified as disabled because of alcoholism and have their social security checks mailed to their local bars.

Our nation's most fundamental problems require all of us to open our minds to solutions that cross political boundaries. Yesterday, Kweisi Mfume said, "We will all either live together or we will perish together, whether we are in Cincinnati or anywhere else, and we have got to get behind our differences and focus on our similarities. And when we do that, we will see the problems and we will attack them together."

Attacking the problems is hard, because it means we have to change individual and family behaviors, cultural norms, corporate policies, neighborhood patterns, entertainment habits, schools, laws, and governmental regulations. That's why it's so tempting to put the Cincinnati riots behind us without dealing with the causes. And so very dangerous for all of us.

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