When The Dispatch launched “Black Out” – a nine-part series looking at the impact of racism in central Ohio as described by Black people who have lived with it – a reader questioned why. Why talk about those long-ago issues of the 1960s? Why dredge up old problems?
The question answers itself.
The reader’s question demonstrates why we need more discussion and understanding of racism. The Black Out series, which began last Sunday and concludes on Monday, starts to fill the need – precisely because people who don’t experience racism personally don’t understand its lasting power or, maybe, don’t believe that it is still a problem.
The Black Lives Matter protests last summer following the brutal deaths of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police opened many Americans’ eyes to one of the most critical dangers of racism and bias. It is heartbreaking that, with the killing of Casey Goodson Jr. by a sheriff’s deputy on Dec. 4, Columbus is facing another tragedy.
But the racial reckoning sparked by the protests also has led to a deeper examination of racism in many other forms. Many are more subtle but nonetheless damaging. Perhaps the most important message is the need to understand the lasting effects of systemic racism – not only the blatant and illegal refusals to hire, or serve, or enroll people of color, but also the racism built into our social infrastructure that held people back generations ago and still do today.
Modern American motorists who don’t think much about systemic racism likely give little thought as to why a particular path was chosen for construction of the interstate highways that cut through our central cities.
In Monday’s installment of the series on racism, reporter Erica Thompson spoke to central Ohio residents who lived in those neighborhoods before the freeways came, when they were thriving, safe and friendly places to live, with stores and restaurants and music venues and well-kept lawns, all close to the heart of the city.
What made places such as Hanford Village and Bronzeville different from other pleasant, family-oriented neighborhoods back then was simple: Most of the people who lived there were Black and had relatively little political representation or power. That made it easy for officials to draw lines on a map that would slice neighborhoods in two and strand small clusters of homes hard up against freeway ramps.
Along with the stifling of community came falling property values, depriving Black families of the path to wealth accumulation that home ownership represents for so many Americans.
Stories about highways ruining neighborhoods tend to bear a distinct similarity to stories about redlining – the practice, dating from the New Deal, of carving up city maps and labeling neighborhoods for their desirability for home lenders. Look for where the freeways carve up residential areas and you’ll likely be looking as well at the places that were “redlined,” meaning that banks were unwilling to make loans for homes in those places.
More downward impact on property values, more limits on families’ mobility, more opportunities lost to the next generation.
What else helps determine success and social position in American society? Education and employment, two other endeavors where the overt racism of past decades leaves its mark today. A hiring manager doesn’t have to be personally racist to perpetuate racism. If he relies on the traditional professional networks of his predecessors, he’s unlikely to encounter all of the possible candidates of color.
Efforts to undo the effects of racism sometimes are themselves harmful, if inadvertently. Kenny Morgan, who grew up on the East Side, told reporter Mike Wagner how scared he was when he learned that he was to be bused to a mostly-white middle school on the Northwest Side when Columbus City Schools began busing for desegregation in 1979.
A friendly white student at the new school, assigned to be Morgan’s “buddy,” assured him the school was nice and that people would welcome him.
But that student understood better when Morgan asked him how he would feel if he were being bused to an all-black school far away.
As it turned out, the Columbus Board of Education changed its plan and Morgan stayed at his home school, but thousands of students, Black and white, suffered the disruption of busing. It was intended as a bold remedy to intentional segregation, which had included equipping white schools far better than Black ones. But it came at a cost: It hampered friendships, made it harder for parents to be involved in their kids’ schools and diluted traditional neighborhood support.
The city school system shrank as white families moved away. Whether motivated by their own racism or fear of their homes losing value because of others’ racism, the result was the same. How much healthier the city and its schools could be if racism hadn’t driven school boards of decades past to do whatever it took to keep Black and white children apart.
A bright spot amid the pain in the “Black Out” series is that, on a human-to-human level, racism is easier to snuff out.
Denise Flowers, who was among the first Black students bused to the former Eastmoor Middle School, remembers how nice it felt to be befriended by a white girl who had been afraid of integration, but realized that Flowers was “so nice.”
And after spending 40 years in prison for a crime the state now admits he didn’t commit, Ricky Jackson used some of his monetary settlement to buy a house in a prosperous white neighborhood. He is used to being tailed by store employees, and says his wife “got the looks everywhere she went,” but he also has the grace to observe that “it’s better now, because people know us and we have a lot of friends who don’t see us for our color.”
But beyond personal relationships, the bitter legacy of systemic racism remains — in lower incomes and lower household wealth for Black people, along with higher rates of illness and death, even as tiny infants. No significant change is likely if the problem remains one that only people of color can see.
The Columbus Dispatch