By Dr. Mark Mussman
“Why don’t the people with too much money help the people who are struggling to get out of poverty?” This is the question that a middle-schooler asked me after an Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement Walking Tour this week. The student had just been exposed to the real history of our neighborhood and was noticing the stark contrasts between the rich and the rest of us. Noting the number of BMW’s that were parked on each block, the student was confused as to how people would just ignore suffering around them as they sauntered into bars and restaurants, trying to ignore the people holding signs and asking for help. The middle school student pointed it out on every block between 12th and 14th Streets, along Vine Street. Wealth and income inequality are so pervasive in the United States right now, that some have said it hasn’t been this bad since before the Great Depression.
Our walking tours provide people with a perspective that is purposefully left out of the other walking tours in the neighborhood. After yesterday’s tour with the middle school students, one of the chaperones pulled me aside to thank me for starting off with the Native American presence in the area. She told me that “most people just don’t even care about the destruction of Native American communities… they just act like they never existed.” While this is something that I understand to be true, it made me connect the dots between the person who is denial about wealth inequality who just parked his BMW and scuttled into a boutique on Vine Street and the people who believe the earth is flat, or that vaccines cause autism, or that climate change is not the fault of humans. All of these people have one thing in common - their inability to look directly at facts and accept them. But the facts behind wealth inequality reveal something even deeper about the American psyche.
Wealth inequality has been an obvious characteristic of American from day one, when the wealthiest man in America was elected our first President and the people who were tabulated as his wealth, people from Africa who were enslaved, had absolutely nothing other than some fictionalized debt to pay to America’s founding. African Americans have always been held back by white people in this country through laws and practices. The laws, or de jure, have been crafted to keep African American people from obtaining and retaining wealth. Laws such as slavery in the south, and the Black Codes in the north, gave way to a legal process in which African American people are exploited for their labor, ideas, innovations, and companion shop. Black Codes in Ohio required all African American people who desired to live in Ohio to have two white people vouch for them at a courthouse and pay a large sum of money. The state of Ohio was literally built using these funds, as the law went into effect within a year of statehood.
Other northern states, such as Illinois, also used laws to make it legal to sell the labor of African Americans who were otherwise residing in a “free state.” These laws continued through the end of slavery and into the Jim Crow era. Jim Crow was marked by segregation and laws that kept African Americans out of the housing market and forced them into segregated communities that were disinvested in for decades. The ability to create generational wealth that was given by federal policies to white people was forbidden by law for Black people. These laws didn’t end with the era of Jim Crow, they were just replaced by the era of mass incarceration, in which we currently reside. America has never been meritocracy, and we have never had a level playing field.
At a speaking engagement this week, we heard from Melissa M. who shares her story of homelessness, that basically lasted the first 50 years of her life. She discusses her journey to her first apartment, including times of isolation and loneliness that come from homelessness. With the rise of criminalization of homelessness, we are indeed seeing more de jure implications for people experiencing homelessness. When Melissa slept on the sidewalk before she found housing, it wasn’t illegal to do so, but today it is different. Last year, Mayor John Cranley and County Prosecutor Joe Deters made it illegal to experience homelessness in all of Hamilton County, on public or private land. When the police and sheriff started to enforce this law, real people were hurt. One man had a heart-attack when they came to sweep his tent off of Third Street. Another man jumped off a bridge into the Ohio River. A young woman was interrogated by the police at the encampment near the Casino and walked off before her ride to the youth shelter arrived. She had no shoes, and was possibly being sex-trafficked, but the network of people that was assembled to help her had not arrived before she was scared off by the police, never to be seen again. These laws have
had direct impact on the lives of people who are struggling to get help in a city where most people are turned away from shelter and the lack of affordable housing is literally sending more than 100 people to an early grave each year.
Another kind of discrimination that occurs without the direct application of laws, is what is called de facto, which occurs because of market and social trends. When real estate agents direct potential buyers into certain neighborhoods, this is a form of de facto segregation. When parents choose specific schools based upon their racial makeup, or when people choose churches with people who are of their “own race,” these are forms of social control that advocate for segregation, for a social hierarchy. De facto segregation is occurring every day. I need to be clear that while blockbusting was used to lower prices in white segregated communities, there is a new type of blockbusting occurring in our inner-ring neighborhoods, where African American people are simultaneously seeing their property taxes go up, yet the sale value of their homes going down. It is not a success when a neighborhood becomes more “diverse” if the power of the minority groups is non-existent.
Melissa also spoke to the group about how she is housing insecure because of the proposed FC Cincinnati soccer stadium project. She has been living in the West End for a couple of years now, becoming more active in the community. She sees her friends receiving eviction notices directly from FC Cincinnati’s property manager, and she is worried that her home will be next. FC Cincinnati commissioned a housing report to be released this summer that already shows that 53% of the West End residents are likely to lose their housing in the next 5 years. Imagine if someone told you that half of your neighbors would be gone in 5 years, how would you feel about your neighborhood? The forces of displacement have been ignited by the proposed soccer stadium, yet the team refuses to take responsibility for it, as Jeff Berding, team spokesperson, claims that they have not committed any crimes. Well, that’s a low bar, don’t you think? When we know that de facto segregation, discrimination, racism, etc., occurs on a daily basis, we’d hope to have higher standards for a project that is receiving millions in city tax-payer subsidy.
When we think about the middle-school perspective of what is right and just, it’s hard to understand why we allow the millionaire class to make the laws, enforce the laws, feel they are above the law, while everyone else suffers under the law. Criminalizing homelessness is not the answer, but perhaps we should criminalize those who make people homeless, like the real estate lobby, the landlords, the developers who through entire communities out on the street, the bankers who still redline, the politicians who allow for the illegal funding of our schools, the healthcare systems that function for profit, the polluters and carbon emitters who are at fault for global warming, and the fossil fuel industry that killed public transportation. Let’s first start by taking away the subsidies for luxury development and soccer stadiums, and focus our budget on the lack of affordable housing in our county and city. We will never have enough money to satiate the rich, but we do have enough to ensure everyone has a safe and affordable place to live.