Pushing the racial dialogue in Cincinnati

[February is Black History Month. Over the course of the month UrbanCincy is attempting to share some stories of individuals from Cincinnati’s robust black community. The good, the bad and the ugly. Last week Alex Schutte discussed what it was like to grow up half-black. This week, Tifanei Moyer shares her thoughts about the racial dialogue in the Queen City -Randy.]


When I think about my experiences in Cincinnati in the context of the dark hue of my skin and kinkiness of my hair, a reel of uneasy experiences plays through my mind:

“You should have a better sense of humor,” my boss told me once after making a joke about people that are black.

“I’m glad I’m not black, because I like my good hair.” My roommate once informs me while she watches me struggle in the mirror with my locks.

“My brother has never dated a black girl, but he has dated trailer trash.” A coworker laughs. She only gets uncomfortable and confused when I ask her about equating the two.

“You’re a shoe-in. They need more black people to represent them on the other side of town.”

“The University of Cincinnati doesn’t graduate one out of three of their incoming freshman of African descent.” A counselor urged black freshman to use tutors to even the alleged graduation gap.

“She calls black people nigger all the time, Tifanei. Like it’s nothing! I don’t know what to do.” A friend (not from Cincinnati) told me about a native Cincinnatian that she roomed with.

“Tifanei, the GM is racist, everyone knows it. There is no way he’s going to let them hire you unless you want to be a ‘busboy’ or a bouncer.” A friend whispers to me at the door at a popular establishment downtown. “He wouldn’t even serve the UC football players until I promised him they were athletes.”

“During the riots my friend was just walking downtown and black people beat him up; he was just minding his own business!” A friend tried to explain the stemming of racial tensions to me.

“Why would you date a white man? Are you tired of black men? Did someone do something to you?” A black colleague confronts me after I introduce him to a boyfriend of the time.

I can’t say I’m a native to Cincinnati. I lived there for four years (18-22) and it’s honestly the longest I have lived in any one city. But while I lived there I never met anyone who denied Cincinnati’s pride and just the same, not a single person denied the segregationist structure that many prideful(!) Cincinnati communities embody.

Even with the substantial African-American Cincinnati history, it’s in my humblest opinion that the segregated communities noticeably affect the consciousness of race related issues and identity.

People will tell me that the “racism” I experienced was just ignorance and not in any way a representation of Cincinnati. But that’s just not true. When you grow up in a community where integrating with people who don’t look like you is not valued, then it affects how you identify and interact with others as an adult.

For a long time I felt that Cincinnati didn’t want to be “burdened” by any anecdote of race. But I started to realize, as I engaged more conversation, many people in Cincinnati don’t feel like they have a safe place to discuss race among a diverse group of people.

As I started to learn more about black history in America, it became my nature to probe people around me for their opinions. I had probing conversations with a lot of Cincinnatians who identified as being white. They would tell me they never discuss race to address social problems or economic-barriers because it wasn’t an obvious reality to them. It was a trend for people to tell me that they felt manipulated by the ‘race card’.

I met a lot of people who identified as black, that only wanted to cross racial community lines when they needed a job or wanted to start a career. I witnessed many of same people, myself including, silently struggling with their identity, because they were trying to understand the difference between “success and failure” versus “suburbs and urban areas” versus “white and ‘other’”. These are not easy conclusions to come to when homogeneous communities with clear socio-economic distinctions are what’s accepted. Cincinnati is where I began to understand how the notion of beauty is affected by having so much pride in a homogenous community, especially when one community is considered more successful and educated than the other.

I know I’m mostly a nomad at heart, but I fell in love with Cincinnati for many reasons – those reasons had nothing to do with race. The heartbreaking lack of racial-consciousness in Cincinnati will change, it has to, but it will take more than just hope. In my opinion it’s going to need a shift in values towards heterogeneous community building and a collective effort to address an individual responsibility that defies race. All hues of human color have to accept responsibility for the reality that we maintain by just “going about our business”.

It’s very, very hard to sum up a large and somewhat ambiguous topic, like being black. But, if I have to, I want to end by saying two things: 1)These are my very personal experiences, I am not Cincinnati, but my experiences are real. I don’t blame people I met for anyone’s struggle with beauty or success. I don’t think that one neighborhood is right or wrong about their interpretation of race and what it really means for someone’s livelihood. 2) I have lived in a lot of different cities around world. Cincinnati’s segregation is unique in a lot of ways, but it’s not unexpected in the framework of the U.S. There are many cities that claim to be successful, but are disturbingly segregated at the expense of their youth and social growth. I know all of the powerful minds behind UrbanCincy are influencing the changes of that.

  • There is an old saying…I think it originated in some form with Mark Twain…”when the end of the world comes…I want to be in Cincinnati, because it will take them ten years to find out…”

    An apt description of the Queen City. You look at Cincinnati from new eyes…I view it from native, 60 year old eyes. We see the same thing, an incredibly beautiful, but cold and segregated city that doesn’t really welcome change or “other-ness.”

    Sadly as you said there is even an unwillingness to discuss the problem.

    Good post.

    If you’re inclined to read further…check out The SkeptikOne http://www.skeptikone.blogspot.com.

  • Tim Wise said it the best…”The denial of racism is racism itself”. Often times racism is overused to explain certain things. Racism is more subtle in todays world. I think it is extremely dangerous to think racism is dead. Racism is much more insitutional and has muscle.We get caught up in the weird distractions of racism on a individual level.Institutionalized racism is what really causes the real damage and where our efforts should be concentrated.

  • Matt Jacob

    I would agree with you in the older generations around the city, but I think the younger generations are changing that mentality slowly but surely. It will take time for us to change.

    “They would tell me they never discuss race to address social problems or economic-barriers because it wasn’t an obvious reality to them. It was a trend for people to tell me that they felt manipulated by the ‘race card’.

    I met a lot of people who identified as black, that only wanted to cross racial community lines when they needed a job or wanted to start a career.”

    This summarizes a lot of my experience with race as well.

    People tend to stay close and hang around people who are similar to themselves, whether that be in values, education, interests, family, where they are from, or other reasons. I think that race only becomes an issue when it prevents someone to freely move between different groups of people. [Like moving up the socioeconomic ladder, getting the same opportunities for education, or living where they want] But many times it is applied to things outside that scope, and many people give race a bad connotation because they associate it with giving unnecessary advantages to balance the problem.

  • I do not think the racial issues experienced in Cincinnati are all that unique to Cincinnati. I do think they speak to the real issues of race in America though, just as the tensions in Arizona speak to it but in a different way.

  • Monica

    “many people in Cincinnati don’t feel like they have a safe place to discuss race among a diverse group of people.”

    I agree. Comfort in diversity is not a characteristic of most places here, but is something that I crave. Personally, it’s exacerbated by my workplace, where it’s so commonplace to the point that it seems encouraged, to make racial comments & jokes. Because it’s a homogenous group of employees, they believe no one is offended. The segregation in Cincinnati definitely breeds a lack of knowledge and understanding. The “racism is dead” argument is always unsettling to hear since it’s still a part of everyday life for many people.

    I wish we could maintain these types of discussions/articles year-round, not only during Black History Month.

  • Monica:

    I agree. These conversations should be had throughout the year and not just limited to the month of February. Black History Month seemed like a logical starting point, but we certainly hope to continue this discussion moving forward.

    If you ever have thoughts you would like to share please do not hesitate to contact UrbanCincy at urbancincy@gmail.com. We also hope to put together some events later on in the year that will help continue this conversation about race.

  • This is such an amazing series–thank you so much for these posts. It’s so nice to finally see these issues addressed openly and honestly for a change. Please keep them going throughout the year!

    And as someone from Louisville, where literally 95% of the black population lives in precisely one area of town (the West End), I fully understand the frustration that can come from total and willful ignorance of systematic racism. One thing I do dig about Cincinnati is that even though there is a substantial amount of segregated pockets, they are at least spread throughout the city, instead of clustered in a single area. Racial diversity and unity are still a struggle here (just watch Police Women of Cincinnati for epic racefail every episode) but I feel that there is at least something happening in terms of moving forward, albeit just as slowly as Twain indicated.

  • Shawn

    Just an FYI – The infamous quote about Cincinnati being “behind by 10 years” has never been fully attributed to Mark Twain. No-one knows who started it, and I think we should stop saying it. It only contributes to the low-city-self-esteem that seems so prevalent in Cincinnati.

    That being said – great post! Looking forward to reading more posts just like it as the year continues.

  • Ryan L

    One of the unfortunate consequences of having so many unique neighborhoods of Cincinnati seems to be that people cling to their neighborhood very strongly. Many people who live in certain neighborhoods tend to live in those neighborhoods their entire life. Citizens of the West End tend to stay in the West End just as residents of Mr. Auburn, Walnut Hills, Hyde Park, Avondale, Westwood, and Price Hill do. Only a few neighborhoods seem to have changed and diversified over time like Northside.

  • Matt Jacob

    Cincinnati may have neighborhoods that are historically black or white, but I wouldn’t call them segregated. Like Ryan pointed out, each unique neighborhood in Cincinnati has its own character and many people return to these neighborhoods because they share values and interests with the people in that neighborhood. Racism only comes into play when people aren’t freely allowed to move to new neighborhoods or treated hostilely when they get there. By in large I don’t think that is the case in Cincinnati. Hell, I’ve noticed 3-4 black families moving into my historically white neighborhood and have yet to hear one negative things about it. These new families share the same values as the rest of the community and we welcome them.

  • Aaron

    Matt, 3 or 4 black families is barely the population of the black community in Cincinnati. That particular block of your neighborhood may be diversifying, but the city in general is not. Check out this image from 2000 census data showing race stratification in Cincinnati.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/5010389993/in/set-72157624812674967/

  • Brooke

    Hello, Monica and thank you for your post. To be honest, racism lives everywhere everyday. As a native of Cincinnati who now lives in the DC metro area, I can say that the Cincinnati neighborhoods should not be the main focus of the racial matter. That problem lives everywhere: NY, DC, Philly, even within the southern neighborhoods where I went to college. The issue is, just because of our continuous racial riots within Cincinnati, it has been amplified that we’re more “racist” than other cities, which really isn’t the case. Of course, there isn’t the right amount of justice, but that’s everywhere. My main issue concerning race within my hometown is not that of where people live (I grew up in an all-black neighborhood myself). However, the issue is their lack of opportunities and resources. Going to college as a first generation student, out-of-state, and from an all-black area – there are not many of us where I’m from. That’s what concerns me: why many of my friends I grew up with accepted life and settled with having kids at early ages without any goals or aspirations to pursue other professional careers outside of doing hair. That’s where the issue starts for me. The lack of opportunities will keep our black people isolated in a different frame of mind or side jobs trying to make it from month to month. So, when we do happen to move into these other areas, that’s why people may give us some awkward look (whenever, but I haven’t seen it) because we have not been completely able to spread our horizons and travel across other fields and paths.

    However, if we do want to worry about neighborhood matters, can we focus on environmental issues: why large landfills and factories are located near our public housing and poorer neighborhoods? We should focus more of a health concern geared towards these groups of people and the children their raising, bringing in new generations of disadvantaged and unhealthy people…perpetually to repeat the cycle.

  • Zachary Schunn

    A few thoughts, because this is something I’ve been talking with friends about a lot lately…

    Remember the “separate but equal” Supreme Court case that “ended” segregation? The problem wasn’t racial segmentation; the problem was that school systems were not “equal.”

    Now, we have come a long way from the days of Jim Crow, but we still have a long ways to go. Aaron’s map is telling in how strongly segregated neighborhoods still are.

    The larger issue, though, is the social inequalities in “white” vs. “black” neighborhoods. I just found some data from (I believe) 2007 that I used in a paper for an undergrad class in college, and the correlation between percent white population in a neighborhood (in Cincinnati) and median household income is an incredibly high 0.788. In other words, if you know the racial makeup of a Cincinnati neighborhood, you could likely fairly accurately estimate the median income.

    So the question becomes, why is this true? In my view, it rests a lot on the failures of urban planning and government policy–ie, single-use zoning and tax policies that promote “white flight,” an underfunded public school system, and a property tax system that provides greater services for those who pay more, etc.

    Makes one think urban planning and government policy could also be used to mediate the issue….

  • Thanks so much for creating this post, and bring this issue to the front of everyone’s mind.
    Being a native of this area, I have see the bad and the good as it applies to race relations evolve over the years. In addition, I have traveled and lived in different parts of the United States and the world and realize that Cincinnati is not the only place where problems with race relations exist.
    I really doubt that there will ever be a complete end to racism, I as feel that there will never be a complete end to people being judged negatively because of a person’s age, gender or sexually orientation. But we can move towards that goal by being open to new things and new ideas, and not being so set in our ways.

  • Dale Brown

    These days its probably more rich versus poor than black versus white, although it tends to break out along racial lines. I grew up in a fairly poor rural area in KY that had a large population of black people; we didn’t think much about race because we were all in the same boat. Some people succeeded in spite of their backgrounds, but most don’t.

    As I became an adult and began traveling to different cities, and moved to Cincinnati, I noticed that poor people are poor people, and tend to make the same poor choices (gambling, drugs, alcohol, having kids without the ability to take care of them), but because black people have migrated to “urban areas,” it is easier to see these mistakes and attach that to race; I’m pretty sure if you could swap all of the miscreants downtown who are black for the same number of white miscreants in a trailer park, you’d get the similar results. The only difference would be the lens we view them through.

  • Dale:

    I do agree that segregation is often based on economic standing, but doesn’t it say something when economic standing is so often closely tied to race?