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Cincinnati: A Continuum Not An Incident


Although many speak of the civil unrest in Cincinnati as an isolated incident based upon tense relations between the city's 43% Black population and its police department we don't agree. Cincinnati is only a microcosm of the racial divide in this country that was written of most poignantly in the famous Kerner Commission Report that stated that there were two Americas, unequal, - one Black and one White. What is happening in Cincinnati today is only possible because the truths that the Kerner Commission reported have not been effectively addressed and because Black leadership and the American political establishment have not been able to produce and maintain community and economic development in any of America's inner cities.

Black leaders who are attempting to make everything underway in the troubled Ohio city about racial profiling and the lack of "police sensitivity", are doing a bit of a disservice to the Black community, although many such leaders are sincerely motivated. The "riots" that occurred in Cincinnati, have their genesis in the dissatisfaction of human beings - which is far greater than a problem with local police departments. In that sense, Cincinnati is no different than L.A. in 1992, Brooklyn in the late1980s and Newark and numerous cities in America 1968.When burning, looting and civil disobedience break out, it always is in response to one event but it never is because of that one event. It is the result of human beings reaching a point of dissatisfaction that is so great that they believe that the state does not value their lives enough to give them justice. It also is a result of the frustration that mounts inside of human beings when they are denied the full expression of their inner selves - in society and in the marketplace. Quite often this frustration is a result of improper development, cultivation and nurturing inside of the oppressed community, largely the result of improper shepherding from the oppressed communities' leadership.

When people believe that they are not a tangible factor of power in their community and in the eyes of the state, they rebel in order to get the attention of those in power and in an effort to realign society's power pyramid. If they are not granted a hearing they will eventually seek to destroy the very social, economic and political arrangement that takes them for granted, ignores them and which, in too many cases, has even taken their lives.

The perception that their lives have been devalued is not only a reflection, in the minds of Blacks that they are being racially profiled by police officers, and more easily murdered as a result of that profile; but it also is a reflection and byproduct of the reality in Black America, that Blacks were once legally considered three-fifths of a human being, were enslaved without wages; freed without compensation, denied the right to vote; discriminated in every sphere of life for over 100 years after slavery ended; and who today, are the sickest of the sick and the poorest of the poor inside of the wealthiest nation in the world.

Racial profiling and the disturbances in Cincinnati are a continuum of this experience and help to compound the perception(s) that America's racial divide have helped to produce. As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun - in this case, the sun over American soil.

But by solely focusing on the issue of racial profiling and police brutality and not on community development and self-improvement and even the need for community policing performed by Black Christians, Muslims and grassroots organizations; Black leaders allow politicians to use rhetoric, studies and new rulings to substitute for real change in the living conditions of impoverished Blacks. It treats a symptom and not the cause. Such an approach also prevents Blacks from moving beyond the one-issue agenda fallacy, which takes the "flavor of the month" approach to political mobilization and organizing of the Black electorate.

It is this failed approach to leadership that causes Black America to attempt to react its way to freedom. It just does not work. Racial profiling should not now replace election reform as "the" issue. Just like election reform should have never replaced racial profiling/police brutality and reparations as "the" dominant issues of 2000. And whatever happened to the fight to protect affirmative action as "the" most important issue of our time? This compartmentalization of and spasmodic approach to Black issues, is one of the biggest of crises in Black leadership - particularly the Black civil rights and political establishment which literally acts as if it is incapable of fighting for more than one issue at a time.

The Black electorate suffers as a result

Blacks on the street do not separate what happened in Cincinnati from what happened in Florida. It all adds up to the same thing - the devaluation of Black life and the denial of freedom, justice and equality.

And for many Whites, Cincinnati is also just like Florida - Blacks misperceiving events and seeing racism where it does not exist. Even many liberal Whites who are the supposed allies of Blacks in various coalitions hold on to the belief that Black people view events too frequently in terms of Black and White.

And then there are the different perceptions between the races on significant events. There was the major difference of opinion in Black and White America over the reelection of Mayor Berry in Washington D.C.; the O.J. Simpson trial; the Million Man March; the impeachment of President Bill Clinton; the case of Mumia Abu Jamal; the execution of Shakah Sankofa (Gary Graham); and last year's presidential election.

And of course, there is the difference of opinion between Blacks and Whites over police with many Whites believing they represent the most moral and just of Americans while many Blacks see them as a lawless "gang" who finish the work that the Ku Klux Klan started.

Even Black conservatives like Rep. J.C. Watts and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who belong to a party, which does not consider racial profiling to be a major issue, are on record speaking of the legitimate concerns that Blacks have with police departments. Rep. Watts has even said that he has been a victim of racial profiling.

But again, racial profiling is not what Cincinnati is about. It is about the reality that Blacks are dissatisfied with the horrible living conditions that surround them - those which were originally created by Whites, maintained today, to an extent, by Whites but also perpetuated internally by Blacks themselves.

But Blacks cannot obtain their dignity solely by protesting against White oppression, mistreatment and oppression at the hand of police. Blacks cannot revalue their lives by a focus trained primarily on injustices at the hands of Whites. The reclaiming of an identity, the improvement of living conditions in the Black community and even an end to police brutality will only come when Blacks unite, develop and discipline one another in their own communities. While the impulse of dissatisfaction is to strike at an external enemy, too often that impulse ignores more damaging internal enemies of envy, jealousy, ignorance, self-hatred which contribute to the disunity that an external force can seize upon.

"Cincinnati" can have a long-term positive effect if it results in a change in the approach and methods of Black politics, mobilization and organization - from protests and social unrest to dialogue, discussion and internal unity as a precursor to external activity.

However, because the power of the state, at its highest levels and to a lesser extent, at the local level, has been and still is in White hands, the brunt of the dissatisfaction that Blacks voice and react to will be directed at Whites - in power - in government and in society.

With a President in power that 93% of Blacks did not vote for; the chief law enforcement officer of the state - an attorney general - in office that Black and liberal leadership depicted as racially insensitive; inner cities more segregated today than 30 years ago; the possibility looming that blackouts will hit cities in California and the east coast including New York City, and with Black unemployment rapidly climbing and promising to skyrocket for black teenagers we are confident that "Cincinnati" stands a good chance of being repeated this summer, across the country.

The question that exists today is the same one that existed over 30 years ago: How will Black leadership handle it?

Hopefully Black leadership will pass the test today that it has failed during our entire sojourn in America.


Cedric Muhammad

Monday, April 16, 2001

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