CLEVELAND'S RACE PROBLEM - How longstanding injustice could cripple the city’s rebirth - Dan Moulthrop chief executive city club

Submitted by Quest-News-Serv... on Sat, 02/21/2015 - 12:23.

Come to Cleveland for a day and you’re likely to hear about The Renaissance: LeBron James is back; downtown development is booming; planning for the 2016 Republican National Convention is underway and prompting a major public facelift. But stick around, and you’ll learn about something else: that economic growth seldom seems to reach any of the city’s poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. You’ll learn about a race problem that long predates the November deaths of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson at the hands of white police officers. It’s a race problem that is bigger than the U.S. Department of Justice findings of systemic excessive use of force by the mostly white police force serving a majority African-American city.

As chief executive of the City Club of Cleveland—a 102-year-old institution created to foster dialogue about local, national and international issues—I often find myself in the midst of conversations about the city. So when I—a white guy—am in a meeting about policing or witnessing the inability of some white people here to understand why Tamir’s death catalyzed such vocal and visible protests, I remember what a divided city this really is. And when I pull on those threads and look at the gulf between, say, African-Americans who believe the criminal justice system is rigged against them and whites who don’t understand why people can’t just follow police orders, I wonder if our longstanding inability to confront our collective history, unconscious bigotry and the deep structural inequities they feed could undermine the exciting story of Cleveland’s rebirth. And then I think, what if we could confront it? What if we could actually overcome it?


It is the beginning of Black History Month, and Blaine Griffin is in his office in the basement of Cleveland’s City Hall. While many departments in this building are quiet places where functionaries silently file and execute the work of municipal government, the Community Relations Board is not such a place. There is high volume conversation, laughter, loud greetings. Griffin is the director of the board. He closes the door to his office. “Sorry about the noise,” he says, adding, “we’re community,” in a way that, along with a slight grin, seems to explain it all.

At this moment, Griffin has one of the most difficult jobs in the city. He is at the center of the conversations that are informing the consent decree that the DOJ and the mayor’s office are negotiating to respond to the excessive force findings. He is the man tasked with keeping people at the table, even when community members are contemplating a recall of the mayor. Griffin is a self-described “big black man” and as he talks, he holds his arms open wide as if he is the rope in a tug of war. His arms seem to encompass the whole of his office. “People want everybody to pick a side, but it’s not about picking a side right now,” he says. “We have to get to the next level. We have a historic opportunity to have these conversations.”

Griffin and his colleague Peter Whitt, an African-American community relations facilitator, talk about the obstacles and challenges African-Americans face, the divisions in the community. Whitt points to the structure of communities as individuals experience them.

“Politically, if you don’t have a network of individuals who can help you get a job, a network of individuals who can connect you with opportunity, you’re stuck,” Whitt says. “You’re asking, ‘Where’s my economic ladder? Where’s my opportunity?’ And no one can answer that right now.

Griffin underscores this by pointing out that Cleveland was ranked last year among the top five most segregated cities in America. The prevailing characteristics of Cleveland’s near East side are intense poverty and a largely African-American population. Griffin says this has created an insular enclave that real opportunity seldom reaches.

Nevertheless, he points out that this community went through a historic integration of the schools when the NAACP sued the Cleveland schools and the State of Ohio in 1973. The success of that is debatable, but today, some district schools are actually attracting white families from the suburbs. Five years prior to that historic lawsuit, city voters elected the nation’s first African-American mayor of a major American city—Carl Stokes. “He set the stage for President Obama,” Griffin says. 

Griffin and Whitt say they believe Cleveland can have this dialogue. To do it, though, they need something: “White males,” Whitt says.


Rob Falls owns one of Cleveland’s largest and most successful communications firms. It bears his name and it serves national clients (Moen, Duck Tape, Susan G. Komen Foundation). He also sits on the local host committee that successfully wooed the 2016 Republican convention to Cleveland. He understands civic fabric and the narratives that can either keep that fabric strong or tear it apart. He says the issue of deep structural racial biases is “the silent elephant in the room.”

“People give it lip service,” he says. “They leave a meeting and nothing happens.” 

Falls is a white guy. He’s originally from Detroit, and he’s been thinking about this knot of issues since he returned to Detroit after working in D.C. as a young man in the Reagan era.

“In Detroit, every night the lead story was about race. Here [in Cleveland], I see a much greater acceptance and integration at so many levels. And at the professional level, Cleveland’s making headway. But there are issues,” he says, and he lists the same indicators many do—education, single parent households, teenage pregnancy, poverty.

He imagines an ongoing dialogue among corporate and civic leaders—the top echelons of Cleveland—about these issues, and he envisions a kind of safe space that allows people to speak openly, the kind that Whitt and Griffin have worked to create in their neighborhood-based sessions.

“The leadership in Cleveland, black and white, has been better than I’ve seen in any city. There’s a camaraderie that looks beyond skin color. If that leadership and attitude can continue and help to permeate the next level down, do I think we have a chance to make a difference? Yeah, I do.”

Falls isn’t the only white male CEO thinking along these lines.

Akram Boutros runs MetroHealth, Cleveland’s public hospital system. He came to town from New York in 2013 and set about restoring internal morale and public confidence in the beleaguered institution. An Egyptian Coptic immigrant, Boutros quickly developed a reputation as a big thinker in a town full of pretty big thinkers in the health sector and as one of the warmest and most magnanimous CEOs in the city. The leader of the biggest provider of care for the poor, Boutros sees his job shining a spotlight on social injustice and economic inequality.

This month, Boutros began a series of appearances on public panels and in keynotes in which he plans on issuing very clear challenges to people in a position to support and implement systemic change.

“To break through the cycle of hunger requires a systemic effort to deal with dozens and dozens of obstacles,” he explains. By way of example he talks about the now-viral story about the 56-year-old Detroit man who walks 21 miles to and from work because his car died and he hasn’t had the money to replace it. You or I would never be in that position, he says. That’s not a hard luck story. That’s about racial inequity and a lack of access to real opportunity. That’s the work that needs to be done, he says, but “no one wants to support that work because there’s no direct benefit. [Many of Cleveland’s most affluent residents] think, ‘I can give my money over here and then I’ll get my name on the building.’”




Dan Moulthrop is chief executive of The City Club of Cleveland, the nation’s oldest continuous free-speech forum and an award-winning former public radio show host in Cleveland.

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