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April 16, 2001

VAS YOU EVER IN ZINZINNATI?

     The other day I opened up my favorite number one-rated English language daily here in the South and what do you know, the name of the city where I was born was plastered in bold print across the front page---"Cincinnati mayor declares curfew, state of emergency to halt riots."
     You just can't imagine how I beamed with civic pride to see the old hometown for one brief moment become the center of the media universe. Impossible to express the depth of those old roots to the community when I realized that people from faraway lands were talking about my little hamlet on the Ohio. Funny, you'd think a guy like me who likes to write would be able to put it all into simple black and white.
     The River City led the international news because last week a white Cincinnati police officer killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man, plunging the burg into several days of LA-style wilding. That brings the number up to 15 of young African-American males killed by city police since 1995. The mayor, Charlie Luken, declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew on city residents, and threatened to call out the Ohio National Guard if that didn't quell the rioters. So far, nearly a hundred people have been arrested for violence, and almost as many have been injured during the unrest. The city of Seven Hills, named after the Roman general who personified the citizen-soldier, was in the middle of a low-conflict, high-tension race war.
     This isn't the first time Cincinnati has been thrust into the global spotlight to air out the stains on its sullied reputation for tolerance and compassion. The city that spawned the likes of Jerry Springer, a former Cincy mayor, has a well-deserved reputation for conservatism. I guess you just can't take pig out of the German pig farmer. (The town's boom years were about a century ago when Cincy was a thriving center for the hog industry---thus the cute-as-a-corkscrew-tail nickname, "Porkopolis.") That old Cincy-style conservatism was witnessed by the world about a decade ago when a controversial exhibition of homo-erotic stills by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was DOA at the city's contemporary art center. Frankly speaking, the Midwest has never been much of a haven for groups outside the quote-unquote mainstream.
     But the boil-over in Cincinnati is just a small part of the larger issue of contemporary race relations in America. Outright discrimination and the overall unequal treatment of African Americans continues to be dirtiest of the country's dirty little secrets.
     A glance at some telling statistics appears to add credence to the conviction that 'The Man' really is trying to keep a brother down. On almost any major indicator of standard of living or level of social integration, blacks are getting the shaft. The median income and education levels for African-Americans are not much more than half that for whites. Right around a third live in poverty. And, the number of young African-American men stuck in the revolving door of the criminal justice system is abominable. In the city down the river that I now call home, Louisville, Kentucky, more than half of all murders committed each year are by black men of black men. The facts strongly indicate that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "dream" of social justice based "not on the color of our skin, but the content of our character" continues to be a dream deferred.
     What's at stake for America is obvious, but the lessons being learned in the Heartland have wider implications. Regardless of your opinion of the States, it's hard to deny that the country is the world's laboratory for that human experiment in how well different people can get along. We aren't the world, but we do closely approximate a microcosm of it. However imperfectly, the United States has done a better job than most of integrating diverse groups into a more cohesive whole. I'm inclined to think that part of the reason America wants to export democracy and free market capitalism to the world comes from the belief that those principles go a long way toward getting people to get along. But disposable income and political freedom can be a good social lubricant only when the political and economic playing fields are level for every group in society.
     Only recently, European countries have had to start addressing the issue of the influx of 'people of color,' and they're acting a lot more like America's Deep South in the 1920s than enlightened Continentals. In almost any part of the world plagued by violence, ethnic divisions between and within countries are most often at the heart of the dispute. Racism, ironically, goes deeper than white-on-black or black-on-white. Even among black Africans there are disputes centered on race. One of the greatest tragedies of the 1990s, the ethnic war in Rwanda, was sparked by the smoldering animosities between Hutus, who are smaller, darker-skinned blacks, and Tutsis, who are taller with lighter skin.
     Still, the condition of America's white and black communities bears a shocking resemblance to the relationship between most white and non-white peoples of the world. With the exception of parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, the poorest of the poor are all people of color. And just like the tired and huddle masses that continue to come to America, many of those people are migrating to greener pastures in other wealthy countries. Since the 1960s, many former Western European colonizers have had special arrangements with the lands formerly under their control to allow people of those countries to emigrate. Indians in Great Britain, Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, these people and countries, as well as many others, only now are having to deal with the fallout from rising racial tensions.
     Asia's turn is coming. Already, Korea is having to address problems relating to racial issues involving the ever-expanding community of Southeast Asians coming to live and work on the peninsula. Seeking those streets paved with gold, many Third Worlders are more than happy to come and clean the First World's toilets for a decent wage, especially when disease, famine, and getting caught in the crosshairs are their only alternatives. In turn, the world's wealthiest countries increasingly need this type of immigration influx. As people make money they tend to have fewer babies. As their population ages, they need more and more young people to shoulder the burden of a welfare state geared toward helping the sick and aging. Add to that the fact that the hometown folks become less and less inclined to take society's shit jobs, and you can see why the world's economic elite have a vested interest in solving the riddle of warmer race relations.
     So what's the solution? For America's black community, many scholars argue that economic empowerment is the key, especially more black-owned businesses. Marx was right about one thing, you have to make former 'slaves' the masters of their own economic destiny. It's the old adage of giving a man a fish versus helping him find access to the capital he needs to build the canning factory. It's just as true for the world at large. Countries trapped in chronic poverty universally are capital- and technology-poor.
     Although I wholeheartedly agree that a short-term solution to the plight of the world's communities of people of color involves better access to money, technology, and education, I'm not sure it's a long-term fixit for the bigger problem of cozier race relations. A rather interesting cure was offered by the movie "Bulworth," that smart, 1998 sleeper hit from Warren Beatty. The story is about your typical liberal whiteboy political insider who wakes up one day to find that somewhere along the line his own dream of fighting the good fight has been deferred by an overriding concern for his tenuous grasp on power. He realizes that the system---of which he is an integral part---has failed the people. Beatty then morphs into a full-on, .9-totting, rhyme-busting, Mac Daddy playa' with Holly Berry in tow as his sexual chocolate arm candy. The epiphany comes when Senator Bulworth, after an interlude of interracial bliss, hits upon the idea of copulation as the silky-smooth path to racial harmony. If we all started getting it on, he reasons, then pretty soon there wouldn't be any racial divisions to argue over. My old man used to say that a couple of hundred years of worldwide round rogering would yield a single mongrel (not in a bad way, mind you) race of people with high-yellow skin color. I'd imagine John Lennon would be especially glad to hear that.
     If we ever get serious about race mixing on a global scale, I'm supremely confident that I'll be able to fit right in. I'm not the slightest bit interested in the continuation of a 'pure' bloodline, and I have no lingering doubts about whether I'm capable of loving any woman, regardless of whether she's black, brown, red, yellow, white, or even Republican. Although, with my pale skin and red hair, I'm not too sure I can vouch for the woman. I seriously doubt that I would be rushing to mix genes with someone from the same ethnic group as Ronald McDonald.
     In fact, red hair is a good example of how ridiculous it is to pigeonhole people by race. Red hair is as much a part of my genetic code as skin color, eye color, height, shape, and predisposition to certain diseases. Even my galaxy of freckles is mapped into my genetic thumbprint. How come I'm not a race apart? Why do I have to sit on the bench with the rest of the white guys? Don't even get me started on the pervasiveness of systematic discrimination against redheads---that is, with the singular exception of our beloved Ireland. "Erin Go Braugh!"
     I also have a dream that one day we can all join hands--or whatever---in mutual celebration of the rich diversity of the world we share. And when that day comes, I hope to be knee-deep in it with the best of them. Take us home, Sly.....

It's the Family of Ma-an. 
It's the Family of Ma-AA-an. 
It's the Family of Ma-an 
It's the Family of Ma-AA-an. 

     Whoops! Just got a call from a woman's group. Seems their a bit miffed by the whole "family of MAN" thing. What's a brother to do? 


by James Strohmaier
jgstro00@yahoo.com