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Racism Is Dying

• October 03, 2013 • 8:18 PM

A residential street in Lakewood, Ohio. (PHOTO: JOSHUA ROTHHAAS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

At least when it comes to geography.

Geographer Joni Seager taught me well. I signed up for the seminar “Gender, Place, and Culture,” not knowing what to expect. Dr. Seager outlined the research agenda. Concerning geographic analysis, did gender matter? Her fundamental question wasn’t rhetorical. It was open-ended. If we introduced a gender variable, did our understanding of human geography change significantly? I approach issues of race the same way. If we introduce a race variable, does our understanding of human geography change significantly?

Spoiler alert, it does. But like gender, the race variable isn’t always the most important. That the race variable wouldn’t be the most important is blasphemy. Well, sometimes gender trumps race. Sometimes, neither race nor gender are the best predictors.

For migration, gender beats race. Gender beats class. Gender beats any other variable championed. Yet gender and migration get short shrift. For the most part, migration is migration. You go where you know. Race taking a back seat to a river in Cleveland:

The hall at Mahall’s 20 Lanes was stuffed. Young men of the hip-hop generation ceded chairs at the bar to women their grandmothers’ age. We’d come to see Mariama Whyte show off her Broadway vocal chops to her hometown fans. After Whyte topped off the night singing with South African actors and fellow cast mates from The Lion King, I stood and added my cheers to the ovations. I’d had the time of my life — in Lakewood.

Clevelanders of a certain age will raise an eyebrow at that sentence, because Lakewood is on the West Side. When it comes to African-Americans, the West Side has been the wrong side of the city’s great divide.

When I came to Cleveland in 1993, I learned I had to make a choice. I’d covered Lakewood for The Plain Dealer and thought the houses were cute, the folks nice and the library excellent. I wanted to move there from Richmond Heights. But my East Side friends were adamant: They wouldn’t cross the river to see me. They claimed it was too far and that the police harassed black men. So I moved to South Euclid.

I joked that the Cuyahoga River might as well be the Red Sea, because getting Clevelanders to cross it took an act of God.

This wasn’t just a black thing. The Cuyahoga River split a city and suburbs fractured by racial and ethnic enclaves. On the East Side, Italians were in Little Italy. On the West Side, they were off Fulton Avenue and clustered near West 65th Street and Detroit Avenue. Although there were Irish on the East Side, the West Side parish endured around St. Colman on West 65th. Puerto Ricans were definitely on the West Side, although migrants from the island first settled around Hough and Lexington avenues.

Emphasis added. Those Rust Belt city divides don’t fall neatly along racial lines. OK, they do if you completely ignore ethnic enclaves. Parochial geography rules.

Race does a poor job of explaining Lakewood. Yet race holds our understanding of cities hostage. We’re stuck fighting the fallout from the MLK riots of the late 1960s. Trumping race, and even gender, is economic globalization. African Americans are gentrifying the West Side of Cleveland.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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