Race and Violence

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A response to one of the final questions in a history class I took over the summer term.

Race remains a major point of conflict in Cincinnati. While blacks make up just less than half of Cincinnati’s population (no race constitutes an outright majority), there are clear racial imbalances in education, employment, criminal justice and housing. The last major outburst in response to the inadequacies were the 2001 riots following the killing of 19 year old Timothy Thomas by a city police officer after a traffic stop (and the mishandling of the situation by the mayor, city council, and police department).

This rocky history is most prominently marked by a de jure and de facto segregation and extends back 200 years to the founding of Ohio. The Ohio constitution of 1803 did not extend the franchise to Blacks, and the black laws of 1807 levied a $500 bond on any black wishing to live in the state. In Cincinnati in particular, blacks faced limited availability of jobs and poor housing conditions, often relegated to backbreaking occupations like those in the steamboat trade and living in neighborhoods like Bucktown where pigs blood literally streamed past in the Deer Creek, turning the air putid. Being a border town, Cincinnati saw many former slaves either pass through once freed (or during their escape) or settle here permanently. Whites did not respond well to a growing black population in the 1820’s and in the summer of 1829, a prolonged white riot led to half of the black population (then around 2000) leaving the city, some forming the Wilberforce colony in Canada. Additional anti-black and anti-abolitionist riots occurred in 1836 and 1841.

Segregation would remain a pronounced problem up through the 20th century, especially as blacks migrated north from the south after the civil war, and in different waves in the 1900’s, especially during World War II. At that time, the largest population of blacks in Cincinnati lived in poor, overcrowded conditions in the West End. But there was little support for better housing conditions for the poor in this time period, as poverty was seen as endemic to these populations, particularly blacks and the sizeable white appalachian diaspora. The redevelopment of large sections of the West End in the 1950’s and 60’s saw the removal of some 50,000 people from the neighborhood, with many moving to Avondale and Over-the-Rhine, which remain population and cultural centers of black Cincinnati. Meanwhile, white flight during the period left the city with fewer and fewer resources to support itself.

There is something to this border mentality, urban pioneerism, led primarily by rich and young whites, today treats the city as a frontier to be reconquered. And the basin is the border between these two Cincinnati’s. This is illustrated most prominently by the finding that the nation’s most income disparate census tract in 2010 was in the apparently up and coming Over-the-Rhine, where two-thirds of households lived on less than $10,000 a year, that tract has only become more gentrified. This Spring, at Taste of Cincinnati, the most prominent news stories were about patrons being mugged near the event. And in July at Lumenocity in Washington park, described poetically as the city coming together as one, there was a shooting in the West End a few blocks southwest of the event. While some may point to the popularity of the two festivals as indicators of the city’s renaissance, the crime is a reminder of the places where social progress has stagnated. It is crime, particularly crime that may affect white people, that makes the news, not the daily violence of poverty, housing insecurity and joblessness that are the norm in the West End and other black enclaves–and have been for nearly two centuries.