I’ll have two posts coming out on Cincinnati in the next week. One on August Willich and early communism and the Civil War in the city and another on some of my own anti-fascist/anti-racist experiences in there. As a sort of preface I offer this brief introduction.
I have a love hate relationship with the city of Cincinnati. It is a beautiful city; its old neighborhoods clinging to seven hills along the Ohio River. Born, raised and then politically active there I have been an exile for almost fifteen years now. Many of those years were passed without as much as a visit to the place. I’ve spent a little more time there recently and it’s got me thinking about the place. Cincinnati straddles the Mason-Dixon line and has always had one foot on the sothrun’ bank of The Ohio; just south enough to have unofficial Jim Crow and just north enough to never get the Civil Rights Movement. A racial cauldron and conservative backwater, it’s a good place to leave.
Cincinnati is a conservative place in nearly every sense of the term. Mark Twain once wrote that he “…wants to be in Cincinnati when the world ends…because it will happen ten years later there.” True to form, it wasn’t until the nineteen-eighties that the city made any real move to desegregate, late enough for me to remember it pretty clearly as my elementary school changed complexion. Cincinnati’s myriad of complex neighborhood boundaries are strictly defined along class and race lines, with a few combustible exceptions, ensuring that segregation continues to exist in education as elsewhere.
In 2006 Cincinnati was ranked third (behind Detroit and Cleveland) for levels of poverty among the nation’s cities. While blacks make up the majority of that urban poverty a large minority are poor whites, often displaced Appalachians, living in what look a helluva lot like ghettos too. The western part of the city (Cincinnati’s population is 49.3% non-Hispanic white and 46.5% black) is overwhelmingly white and largely working class, while the center and east is largely black working class and poor (with large, middle-class white neighborhoods also in the east). A serious provincialism infects the city and racial solidarity is no barrier to neighborhood conflict as what block you come from ranks just below race and class in defining you. Many Cincinnatians die in the neighborhood of their birth.
Classes (and the resentments between the working class west and the more middle class east) also drive much of the city’s politics. While many US cities saw a massive white flight in the post-WWII years, Cincinnati’s white working class neighborhoods remained largely intact and in the city. Also important to note is that the regional ruling class remained firmly invested in the city ensuring a thriving urban middle class right alongside that huge percentage of the city that lives in “official” poverty (upwards of 30%). That inequality is in the face of every resident. Wealthy, manicured squares are just down the street, and a world away, from impoverished strips of dollar stores and check cashing stands. The rich resent it in their way as much as the poor do in theirs.
Some of the western neighborhoods have long been considered no-go zones for black folks and not without reason. My own neighborhood, in the east, was close to black neighborhoods and off-limits, except for the bus stop, to blacks. A walk through my neighborhood by a black man would get the police called. It did get the police called. To my shame I have watched as black kids were chased for fear of their lives from my neighborhood by white kids, twelve and thirteen years old and younger. I made up for my early passivity later.
Racial tension is such in Cincinnati that plenty of black neighborhoods would have been no-go areas for whites as well. I have been on the wrong side of that line myself. One of my high schools, Withrow, was largely poor and black with a poor Appalachian minority at the edge of a well healed middle class white neighborhood. Once in the middle of English class I heard someone yell “posse in effect” at which point half of the black kids rushed out of the room. I watched from the window as the field behind school was engulfed in a race fight. One of a million anecdotes that could be told. “I don’t want to chose sides, get me the hell out of here!” was one of my earliest racial memories. The only largely neutral areas were around certain bus stops that everyone had to use to transfer through the city. While perhaps not as pronounced as years past, it will take generations for that dynamic to change.
Much has been written on Cincinnati’s notorious “race problem” and some of it quite good. I can’t do justice to the question, but I can confirm its central thesis. In the city that I grew up in blacks, practically the numeric equal of whites, were made to know it was a white man’s city. The city’s police have a reputation that would make Birmingham blush. Naturally a resentment grew up and the consequences painfully predictable. Growing up there was a lesson in racial politics that I have yet to untangle. The rules of racial discourse and discourse among races were complicated and exact. A simple breach could lead, and did lead, to violence. Much of my early years were spent trying to keep my head down and avoid the fracas; each bus ride to school a potential race riot. Some in the city would like to say that I am exaggerating; I am not.
The town’s conservatism is as notorious as its racism. The two go hand-in-hand in American politics after all. The area around Cincinnati; southwestern Ohio, southeastern Indiana and into northern Kentucky are now a Republican Party heartland. Some of that goes back to the original free-land/free-labor Republican farmer stock and some of it is “butternut” Democrats transferring their party allegiances from the segregationist Democrats to the conservative Republicans as late as Reagan. The German Catholic working class of Cincinnati has all of the negative attributes of their racial privilege and none of the consciousness of their class to help undermine it.
That wasn’t always so. The waves of German immigrants to which so many whites of the city trace back to carried the ideas of Red ’48 with them. The conservative white Republicans would be shocked to know of the role of Marxists in the formation of their party. In no other city, with the exception of Saint Louis, were communists so instrumental to the birth of the Republican Party in the 1850s. Workingman’s clubs and newspapers were founded in the city, unions were active in the trades, and the First International had an vibrant office there.
The other side to this story is, of course, the resistance to the racial nightmare and the pervasive parochialism that entrenched class divisions create. This is a city that was home to an energetic abolitionist movement; Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, spent her formative years in the city where her father was a Great Awakener. Black self-organization was a necessity and a fact. There was a certain consciousness associated with that; black nationalists and radicals have long had a voice in the city. A city that conservative can’t help but produce rebels. My friends and I were, unbeknownst to us, part of a long tradition as we joined other generations long gone in trying to shake off the city’s small-mindedness. However, if the fact that most of us don’t live there anymore is an indicator, I’d say the city won.
More to come.