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These racial disparities are not new and they are not accidental, experts said, they are the culmination of more than a century of policy decisions. But they also said racial equity is achievable with intentional effort, and a partnership of several local organizations has formed to push toward that goal.
“Right now the African American community is saying ‘enough is enough,’” said Amaha Sellassie, a community organizer and sociologist at Sinclair Community College who’s at the forefront of several local efforts.
“We’re not going to go on living in this country for 400 years and still be treated as second-class citizens,” he said. “We want all of the systems, powers, processes to acknowledge the dignity and worth of every human being.”
‘We’ve lacked the will’
Sellassie said in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and amid the nationwide protests that followed, a chorus rose to end racism, including corporations large and small, leaders from both political parties, even former skeptics of movements like Black Lives Matter.
“For whatever reason, there is a willingness to have a conversation that I’ve never witnessed before and I don’t think it’s ever happened in America,” he said.
Shannon Jones, Warren County commissioner and director of the early learning advocacy group Groundwork Ohio, said that historically state and local leaders have been unwilling to directly address racial disparities. She is hopeful that is changing.
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Jones, also a Republican and former state lawmaker, said that policies often look to address “poverty” as a proxy for race but fail to look at the specific issues facing the black community that extend beyond poverty, and how current efforts fall short.
“The data tells us that we are not doing enough or we aren’t doing the right things,” she said. “We’ve lacked the will to address the role systemic racism has played in our policies and investments.”
Past and present
In order to address these problems, we have to understand their roots, said Kierra Barnett, a researcher for the Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.
“It’s real easy to blame the individuals who live there currently for the conditions of their neighborhoods if you don’t understand the history of how the neighborhoods got that way,” Barnett said. “Our communities of color have less resources because that’s they way it was designed to function.”
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Barnett gave an example of a practice that segregated and held back the local black community at a presentation to local leaders in January. She displayed a map of the redlining of Dayton. Redlining was a policy prevalent in the 20th century that denied loans and other services to black residents, often keeping them clustered into a few neighborhoods. Then later when the nation's highway system was built, they were paved through the middle of these communities.
Historical redlining map of Dayton
Today in Dayton, 82 percent of the residents of the formerly redlined communities are low-to-moderate income and most are minorities. If you overlay maps of child opportunity, lead poisoning in children, food deserts, and alcohol and tobacco vendors, the redlining patterns can be seen.
“This is our history but it also our present,” Barnett said.
Region still segregated
The Dayton region remains segregated, though it has made progress over the past 10 years, according to an analysis of census data conducted by William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, for the Dayton Daily News.
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Frey compared the Dayton metropolitan area to the rest of the 91 large U.S. metros with a black population of at least 3% and found ours is the 23rd most segregated. Today, about 63.7 percent of the Dayton region’s black residents would have to relocate to be evenly distributed with whites.
The 10 most segregated large metropolitan areas include Cincinnati and Cleveland, Frey’s analysis found.
In the Dayton metropolitan area — which includes all of Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties — about two-thirds black children are growing up in neighborhoods lacking resources that would give them the same opportunities to succeed as white children, according to a study released this year by Brandeis University.
The study analyzed 29 factors such as quality schools, parks and playgrounds, clean air, access to healthy food, health care and safe housing. It then compared neighborhoods across the country to assign each neighborhood an opportunity score. Neighborhoods were then ranked in five categories from very high opportunity to very low opportunity.
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In the Dayton metropolitan area, the study found 65 percent of black children live in very low opportunity neighborhoods. By comparison, 71 percent of local white children live in neighborhoods ranked from moderate to very high opportunity.
Black children in the Dayton region had some of the lowest opportunity scores in the country, along with Youngstown, Cleveland and Toledo.
“The index shows us where we need to invest if we truly care about equity and justice,” said Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supported the research, when the study was released. “We need to look at the policies and systems that have led to these disparities and work to change them so that all children and families are valued equally.”
Income gap widening
A study released in March by the Brookings Institution found Dayton fares worse that similarly sized cities at racial inclusion in the local economy.
The study compared the 56 U.S. metropolitan areas with a population between 500,000 and 1 million and ranked the Dayton region 55th in racial inclusion from 2008 to 2018.
Over that decade, the employment rate gap between black and white residents grew by nearly 1 percent. The gap in annual median earnings grew between blacks and whites by $4,309. The gap in relative poverty between black and white residents grew by 4.2 percent.
From 2017 to 2018, the median earnings gap decreased, but the employment rate gap and poverty rate gap continued to grow. This drags down the whole region’s economy, experts say.
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“You don’t actually sustain a growing economy long-term if people are systematically excluded from it,” said Alan Berube, senior fellow and deputy director at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, in an interview with the Dayton Daily News.
Impact on health
The myriad disparities black residents face have a measurable impact on the health of the black community, according public health officials.
In Montgomery County, black babies die at a rate four times higher than white babies, according to the 2019 community health assessment by Public Health Dayton-Montgomery County. Black women are less likely to receive adequate prenatal care and twice as likely to have a low-birth weight baby compared to white women, the report says.
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The diabetes rate among black men is nearly twice the countywide average. Black men have a higher death rate from heart disease and stroke, and twice the rate of prostate cancer.
The total average lifespan for a black man in Montgomery County is 65.5 years, which is six years lower than white men and 13 years lower than white women.
The coronavirus pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on black Ohioans, who make up 14% of the state's population but 25% of COVID-19 cases, 31% of hospitalizations and 18% of deaths.
“The health disparities didn’t occur overnight,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said last month while noting the need to address root causes such as improving access to housing, nutritious food, education, health care and transportation.
“(The disparities) are complex and present complex challenges,” DeWine said. “The current coronavirus pandemic has brought into high contrast these troubling issues.”
‘Fruit’ of the tree of racism
The studies cited in this story are only a sampling of the data that shows how many local black residents experience a different reality than white residents. One could look at housing, criminal justice, educational achievement or other areas and it would tell a similar story.
But Sellassie says all of these issues are “fruit” of the same problem: racism. By that, he means not just intentional racism but also systems that — intentional or not — produce disparate results for black people.
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“It wasn’t created overnight and it’s not going be fixed overnight but it comes down to a willingness, and I think people are willing, and I think the pressure people are putting across the state and across the world right now is creating a willingness to have conversations,” Sellassie said.
New effort forming
Some of the region’s most prominent institutions announced last week they have been working for more than a year on a new, collaborative effort to address these problems called the Institute for Livable and Equitable Communities.
The institute is a partnership involving the Dayton Foundation, Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission, Learn to Earn Dayton, and partners from the city of Dayton, Montgomery County, the business community, higher education, hospitals, nonprofits and more.
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The institute will be housed at planning commission and is currently hiring someone to lead the effort. After that, it will have community listening sessions to identify how and where to start in addressing racism and ageism. One effort under way is working to expand access to broadband and technology to students and employees learning and working remotely.
“The challenges we face as a community are deeply embedded from literally hundreds of years of inequity,” said Dayton Foundation President Michael Parks in a statement last week announcing the institute. “All the members of our community who are impacted by these inequities need a stronger voice and place for action.”
‘We’ve got to make a difference’
The institute intends to use a regional approach and partner with organizations that have been working diligently on these issues for decades, Regional Planning Commission President Brian Martin said. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, he said, but he sees a moment now to make meaningful change.
“The young folks who are protesting and are not accepting this are leading us to this point,” he said.
“Their history is being set up for them right now and that’s what myself, as a human being, and especially as an African American, I can’t stand by the system. We’ve got to start,” he said. “Let’s not just let this moment go by, we’ve got to leverage this, and we’ve got to make a difference.”
Staff Writers Amelia Robinson and Laura Bischoff contributed to this report