Too much honesty: A commentary on the ‘Cleveland may be perceived to be the butthole of the world’ brouhaha

By Mansfield Frazier

Perhaps Mayor Frank Jackson has been in office too long. Why am I putting forth this assumption? Simply because our four-term mayor did something highly unusual for a politician or elected official: He spoke openly and honestly — unfiltered if you will — during an interview with a member of the media, Matt Ferner of the Appeal.

In the widely viewed interview Mayor Jackson made the statement: “Even though Cleveland is perceived to be the butthole of the world sometimes, right?” and all hell broke loose. Mayors are supposed to be the number one cheerleaders for the residents of the cities that put them in office and should be skilled enough to perform all types of verbal gymnastics, no matter how much shading of the truth or contortion of the facts it takes, to avoid saying anything even slightly negative about their bailiwick.   

So when Jackson made his forthright statement there were a lot of people who immediately took it out of context, as if he was blaspheming the memory of Moses Cleaveland (yes, his name was actually spelled with an “a” after the first “e” but according to one local legend, in 1830, when the first newspaper, the Cleveland Advertiser, was established, the editor discovered that the headline was too long for the form, and accordingly left out the letter “a”) and Tom L. Johnson as well, who, by the way, also served four terms as mayor, albeit they were two-year terms at the beginning of the 20th century not four.
 
Indeed, the ensuing brouhaha was so tumultuous the mayor’s press office beseeched everyone to read the rest of what he said so that his inflammatory statement could be placed in context. The rest of what Jackson said was, “When you look at perceptions, not reality, when you look at gross domestic product and gross domestic capita, Cleveland and the Cleveland region is a pretty wealthy area. So how is it since we’re so wealthy and have such a robust economy and the per capita share of the economy is so high, how is it that we have all this poverty? How is it we all have this lack of education and health when we are the epicenter of major infrastructure for delivery of health with the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and MetroHealth? It’s because we have institutionalized inequities and institutionalized disparity that the system functions that way.”
 
Another way of stating this fact is this something I’ve been writing for years: Take all of the black folk out of Cleveland so all you have left are white folk and their accumulated wealth and decent incomes and instead of ours being the second poorest city in the nation we would rise to the middle of the nationwide financial pack.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, “Black households in the United States have, on average, considerably less wealth than white households. In 2016, the average wealth of households with a head identifying as black was $140,000, while the corresponding level for white-headed households was $901,000, nearly 6.5 times greater.  The fact that blacks, on average, have considerably less wealth than whites is troubling, not just because it is an inequality of outcomes, but also because it strongly suggests inequality of opportunity. The economic opportunities provided by wealth range from insuring consumption against disruptions to a household’s disposable income (such as surprise medical expenditures or unemployment spells) to enabling access to housing, good public schools, and postsecondary education.”

What folks were upset about was the truthful message Frank Jackson delivered because it seemingly would force us to stop and consider the “why” of the situation. Why is it that blacks are kept on the bottom rung of the economic ladder while constantly being told by the majority culture that our penurious condition is our own fault, of our own making, not the fault of the centuries of oppression that was designed to keep us financially disadvantaged? While Mayor Jackson was speaking specifically about poverty in Cleveland, he could have been talking about virtually any city in the nation with a substantial black population since the problems created by racism are endemic in America.

From redlining of black neighborhoods (originally initiated by the federal government in the 1930s) by financial institutions as places where loans for housing and business startups would be routinely denied; to the restrictive covenants and codicils by municipalities and individuals that forbid the transfer of land to blacks; to the outright violence historically perpetrated against blacks that established their own viable communities and businesses, such the infamous Tulsa race massacre of 1921 … virtually every instance of blacks lifting themselves up by their bootstraps was an affront to bigoted whites who snarled “How dare they?”     

Mayor Jackson’s questioning of why the poverty rate among blacks is so high in Cleveland is rhetorical, since he knows the answer: it’s because of a school system that is underfunded in spite of a 2002 Ohio Supreme Court decision, DeRolph v. State, that ruled that the state’s method for funding public education was unconstitutional and directed the state, via the state legislature, to find a remedy, which, to this point, it has refused to do. Why? The answer is simple: Ohio is actually a southern state that only happens to be located in the north.

It’s also because many cities in the north, including Cleveland, have programs that give lip service to creating economic inclusion, yet ask most minorities that have attempted to access such services and they will tell you the majority of such efforts are a mere chimera, smoke and mirrors designed to exculpate white guilt. If this were not the case, there would be more successful minority-owned businesses around the United States.

Oftentimes we see businesses that are good corporate citizens spotlighted for their efforts at diversity and fairness, but if we really want to try to create parity of employment and treatment in Cleveland we would shine a spotlight on the numerous local companies that have a history of excluding people from employment based on their race – a racial scorecard, if you will. But the realistic chance of something like that happening is virtually nil.

The fact is, many folks didn’t like — and for years have elected to ignore — the message the mayor was sending about what keeps our city among the poorest in the nation, so they did what they always do in these situations: Kill the messenger. But what everyone should realize is the cities that learn to treat all citizens with respect and dignity — that open up economic opportunities for all irrespective of race — will be the ones to prosper in the future. We could become that Atlanta of the north.

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