Systemic racism is embedded in our society due to past issues that led to present problems

In a landmark 1997 case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state’s method of funding school districts violated the Ohio Constitution. The ruling fueled outrage at the time and remains controversial today.

The court said the funding system, which relies largely on property taxes, failed to provide education that was equal in quality in all school districts. In poorer rural and urban areas, property was valued less than in suburban districts, which meant less property tax dollars for students. State subsidies weren’t enough to make up the deficit.

The justices, in a 4–3 vote, ordered the Ohio General Assembly to make the school funding system more equitable. Politicians and newspapers howled in protest, saying the court had crossed the line into legislating. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court issued the same ruling three more times over the past 20 years.

The legislature did little until Dec. 3, when the Ohio House of Representatives, in an 84–8 vote, passed House Bill 305. Supporters said the bill would ensure adequate funding for all students, regardless of where they lived. Among other things, it would end the overreliance on property taxes and consider median income, as well as property value, when calculating state funding to school districts. Thus districts with high property values but lower median incomes would receive more state money than under the current system, and they potentially wouldn’t have to ask voters for property tax hikes as often.

However, the Ohio Senate was lukewarm toward the bill. Senators said the legislation needed more vetting and debating, so they would likely not act on it this year. If the Senate doesn’t vote on the bill in 2020, it will die, and legislators will have to start over next year.

The sinking status of HB 305 is another disappointment for Ohio’s Black citizens, many of whom live in struggling urban school districts. That’s because education is tied to so many other issues, including employment, housing, and access to healthcare. Without a good education, it’s harder to climb into the middle class.

“It’s critically important to address the legacy and history of under-resourced schools in urban areas,” says Ronnie Dunn, associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University and the college’s interim chief diversity and inclusion officer. “Although many Blacks have moved out of the urban core and into suburban districts, you still have a concentration of minorities and Blacks in the inner city.”

Students in the inner city don’t have access to digital tools that have become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic as children study at home. Dunn says 25% of Cleveland households aren’t connected to the internet.

“It’s been long enough,” Dunn says of Ohio’s school funding system and the lack of success in changing it. “How long do you keep delaying? Kids are suffering as a result.”

Over the decades, Ohio has seen fits and starts in the drive for racial equality in education, housing, employment, and healthcare.

“We’re getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” says Tom Sutton, professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea and director of the university’s Community Research Institute.

The Black Code

Ohio declared itself a non-slave state when founded in 1803, although not entirely for charitable reasons.

“Ohio settlers didn’t want an economy based on slavery because they thought it would cripple the economy and make people lazy,” Sutton says. “They would be dependent on slave labor instead of their own initiative.”

Still, the state established a Black Code, or series of laws that, for example, required Blacks moving into Ohio to post a $500 bond as an insurance policy. Black residents weren’t allowed to vote, testify in court against whites, or serve in public office or the militia. They were banned from public schools until 1848.

An 1851 revision to the Ohio Constitution gave Blacks the vote and eliminated the bond requirement, and by then Ohioans were supporting the abolishment of slavery and setting up Underground Railroad stops.

After the Civil War — when Jim Crow laws that marginalized Blacks popped up all over the South and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated facilities and institutions were acceptable as long as they were “equal” — freed Blacks working as sharecroppers in the South started moving north in search of better jobs. Dunn says that 6 million Blacks migrated north between 1910–1970, settling in cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus.

Black families had little when they arrived, so they lived in slums like Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, just east of downtown. Immigrants from overseas also moved into poor neighborhoods but, because institutions like the Catholic Church provided them a decent education, immigrant families entered the middle class within one or two generations.

Black citizens had no such help, and it was hard for them to fit in, Sutton says, because they didn’t look like everyone else.

“American society would not accept the assimilation of Blacks and we’re still dealing with that today,” Sutton says.

Housing traps

Some public policies meant to help American citizens ended up hurting Black families.

Public housing was introduced in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of laws meant to lift the country out of the Great Depression. The idea was to clear out slums and build new, safer housing. At the time, private-sector home construction was lacking due to the economic downturn.

Cleveland was the first city to receive public housing, which the federal government intended to be desegregated. However, local officials had other ideas. Blacks were grouped into the new Outhwaite Estates in the Central district where they were already living. Whites were assigned to Cedar Apartments and Lakeview Terrace. Federal officials, anxious just to get the housing built, didn’t fight the segregated arrangement.

Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Administration was created to help citizens afford homes by backing mortgages given by FHA-approved lenders. The problem was that between 1934–1968, 98% of all federally backed home loans, including those by the FHA and the newly created U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, went to whites.

The private sector also conspired against Blacks. Real estate agents and banks developed a scheme that became known as redlining, a term that referred to boundaries on a map within which Blacks were segregated. No loans were approved to whites wanting to buy homes in Black areas and Blacks were shown homes only in the slums. Banks charged higher interest rates to Blacks, believing they were a higher risk due to lack of work history and savings.

In addition, developers of suburban residential subdivisions built after World War II established restrictive covenants that banned Blacks, Jews, and Catholics. Their reasoning was that if Blacks moved into a development, whites would not.

Richard Rothstein — author of the book The Color of Law, which looks at how government policies encouraged racial segregation — said at a recent online panel discussion that military veterans of World War II, with government help, paid about $8,000 for these new suburban homes. That equals about $100,000 in today’s dollars.

Nowadays, those same houses are worth up to $500,000. Increasing home values is typically how middle-class families accumulate wealth, but Blacks were left out of this equation.

Professor Tom Sutton at Baldwin Wallace University“When people mention institutional racism, this is what they’re talking about,” Sutton says. “It’s so deeply embedded, people didn’t realize it was happening, especially if they didn’t live near Blacks. And it’s been going on for generations.”

Urban renewal, meant to address urban blight in the 1950s and 1960s, also backfired. More than 100,000 substandard living units were torn down across the country, but only 28,000 new units were built to replace them.

Dunn says that under urban renewal, more land was cleared in Cleveland — about 6,000 acres in seven neighborhoods — than in any other city. Displaced Blacks with nowhere else to go moved into the Central, Hough, and Fairfax neighborhoods, which became even more overcrowded.

Employment, education and health

Dunn says Blacks were confined to menial jobs when they first migrated north. Often, because they were the last hired, they were the first fired. The trades in general discriminated against them when it came to hiring.

Eventually Blacks landed jobs in factories and over time managed to join labor unions, Sutton says, which helped some climb into the middle class. But many of those jobs disappeared in the 1970s. Today’s industrial jobs are in Cleveland’s outer-ring suburbs, and many inner-city Blacks have no transportation to get them there.

So, families left behind in poor neighborhoods ended up in a cycle of unemployment over generations.

“You are concentrating impoverished people in housing developments and they aren’t exposed to middle-class working people,” Dunn says. “So you have internal culture where young people aren’t seeing Mrs. Jones getting up and going to work.”

There were occasional successes. In 1935, the Future Outlook League formed in the Central neighborhood to help Blacks obtain jobs. The group encouraged white business owners to hire Blacks and even boycotted businesses that didn’t. Dunn said the group forced the old Ohio Bell telephone company to hire its first Black operator.

But lack of employment opportunities, poverty, and overcrowded living conditions have meant poor health for urban Black families. They eat what they can afford, which isn’t always the healthiest foods, and that leads to chronic medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension.

Rothstein says Black children today suffer from asthma at four times the rate of other children due to their polluted environments. If they’re sick, they can’t learn well in school, and the cycle of poverty continues.

Searching for solutions

In some ways, Ohio has been progressive on civil rights issues. In 1959, the state passed its own civil rights act, which created the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to investigate discriminatory acts. In 1965, the legislature passed a fair housing act — three years before Congress did the same — that prohibits housing discrimination.

These laws helped some Black families relocate to the suburbs, and some communities, like Cleveland Heights, have embraced integration and diversity. In other suburbs, though, like East Cleveland, when Black started moving in, whites left. Dunn says East Cleveland today is one of the five poorest cities in the United States.

Meanwhile, redlining, although widely condemned publicly, is still taking place and helping to divide America in more ways than one.

“If so many Blacks and whites live so far away from each other, how can we understand each other?” Rothstein said at the panel discussion.

Dunn says new policies are needed to stop housing segregation once and for all. For example, landlords shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against lower-income families receiving government assistance for housing.

On the employment front, Sutton says more needs to be spent on public transportation so that urban Blacks can reach jobs in the suburbs. The number of workforce development and training programs also must increase to prepare them for those jobs.

Rothstein says that to increase wealth among Blacks, the federal government should buy quality homes at market rates and sell them to Black families at prices they can afford — like the $100,000 their grandparents would have paid, in today dollars, if they had been awarded federally backed mortgages like whites after World War II.

As for education, Dunn favors county-wide school systems where resources can be more equally distributed. Families would have more choice in schools.

Rothstein has called for a new civil rights movement to move things off square one. He’s now working with civil rights leaders across the county to form a national committee that he hopes will launch early in 2021. The committee would help nurture local civil rights groups.

Dunn says that’s fine but he’s hesitant to call it a “new” civil rights movement. He said the fight for civil rights has never stopped, although there have been lulls.

“Blacks have always been engaged in the struggle for equal rights,” Dunn says. “Throughout history there has been progress, then backlash, and the movement hasn’t been sustained. We need a re-concerted effort.”


Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

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