By Rebecca Maurer
Serial—the nationally-recognized investigative journalism podcast series—just wrapped its third season, which took listeners on a simultaneously humanizing and dispiriting tour of the criminal justice system in Cleveland, Ohio. Hosts Sarah Koenig and Emmanual Dzotsi spent the season exploring issues like sentencing, prosecutorial discretion, police brutality, juvenile justice, racial disparities, and community trauma. And in the final episode, released on Thursday, they reached the same consensus as other journalists and experts before them: the system is broken.
Serial hoped to use Cleveland’s justice system as an example of issues plaguing criminal justice nationally. But for Cleveland, this spotlight is a chance to see our town with fresh eyes, to step back and consider the big picture of how we got here and what we must do to move forward.
With this in mind, I began writing responses to each episode of Serial, diving into our region’s history to supplement Serial’s focus on criminal justice with stories of economic justice. It is well established that the criminal justice system is one of the most profound forces entrenching inequality, and particularly racial inequality, in our society today. I hoped to widen the lens of Serial’s work and talk about the relationship of criminal justice with racist public policies in areas like housing and education.
When Serial talked about juvenile justice, I wrote about lead poisoning and educational segregation in Cleveland. When Serial talked about gun violence on the border of Cleveland and Shaker Heights, I wrote about the history of redlining that solidified that border and divested resources from the minority communities on the Cleveland side. When Serial talked about police brutality in Euclid and East Cleveland, I wrote about blockbusting and the long history of demographic shifts that exacerbated negative community-police relations.
The project—SerialLand—took off in a way I hadn’t expected. There was a surprising eagerness to understand how issues of criminal justice and economic justice in Cleveland layered together. There seemed to be a growing appreciation for the structural inequalities that both contributed to, and were emblematic of, the effects of the criminal justice system on communities of color.
And yet, the conversation always came back to the same question: what do we do now?
Serial took a stab at answering this question with regard to criminal justice, ending its season with a list of recommended reforms. But the larger question—addressing systemic inequality across the board—remains unanswered. We cannot fix inequality within the justice system without also tackling inequality outside of it. The two are permanently intertwined.
Our country has a devastating problem of wealth inequality along racial lines. Black families average only $5 in saved wealth for every $100 saved by a white family. In Ohio, those numbers are even worse. Black families have only $2.60 in saved wealth for every $100 saved by a white family. Racial wealth inequality tripled nationally from 1984 to 2009, and it shows no signs of waning.
In Cleveland, black residents never had a fair shake at getting wealth-building opportunities. You could spend a lifetime explaining why (and some historians have), but the condensed version goes something like this: as far back as the Great Migration, Cleveland’s leaders forced black residents into segregated ghettos that limited opportunities. A federal program in the 1930s and 1940s, designed to identify “desirable” areas and stop the “infiltration” of minority groups, redlined black residents into the same pockets of poverty and disinvestment we see today. Job opportunities were severely limited for the newly arrived black residents. (And there is compelling evidence of rampant, systematic job discrimination based on race right through to the present day.)
Even when housing opportunities opened up in wealthier neighborhoods in the 1960s, blockbusting and white flight meant middle-class black families ended up facing the same problems they had fled in the first place. In suburbs like East Cleveland—featured heavily in Serial—the transition from almost all white and well-resourced to almost all black and under-resourced took as little as ten years. Cleveland ended up as a so-called “hyper-segregated” city. Today, it is one of the top five most segregated cities in the country.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, black families, like all other American families, tried to build wealth through homeownership. But the 2008 foreclosure crisis devastated Cleveland and stripped wealth from those same black communities, which were disproportionately targeted for subprime loans, Today, thousands of black families are cycling through our eviction economy every year. Even worse, the cycle puts black children at higher risk of exposure to lead poisoning in the region’s deteriorating housing stock.
Educational gaps exacerbate and reinforce these inequalities. In 1976, a federal judge found that Cleveland purposefully segregated its schools. And Northeast Ohio’s balkanized maze of suburbs makes segregation worse by splitting the region into separate school districts with drastically different resources and outcomes. More recently, according to an extensive report from UCLA on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Cleveland’s school segregation became worse from 2001-2011, not better. This segregation has contributed to the achievement gap between white and black students in Cuyahoga County.
Finally—and here is where Serial enters the picture—the overcriminalization of black communities has also stripped residents of wealth and opportunity. White and black residents commit many crimes at the same rate, and the disparities that do exist are tied to socio-economic status. As a result, there is overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects communities of color. A black resident of the Cleveland metropolitan area is more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than a white resident. And interaction with the criminal justice system limits job opportunities, prevents citizens from building wealth, and has long-lasting collateral consequences that affect economic stability.
For generations, our civic infrastructure has been built around alleviating poverty—i.e. supporting well-meaning endeavors to improve the livelihood of Cleveland’s poor. The problem is that poor people, and particularly poor people of color, didn’t become poor in a vacuum. They became poor as a result of decades of racist policies. And they became poor to the betterment of others. Alleviating poverty is not enough to tackle inequality—we need to address both sides of the coin simultaneously.
This task will be difficult. Tackling criminal justice—Serial’s core focus—already means wrestling with layer upon layer of state bureaucracy, which is no small undertaking. But tackling economic inequality means wrestling with perhaps an even thornier problem: the perceived comfort of those who have benefited under a system that continually sorts people into the haves and the have-nots. And, yet, it’s a task we must undertake.
Here, then, are some suggestions for where to put our energy:
To address housing inequities, residents of our region could lobby for changes that support the mobility of low-income residents into higher-income areas. For instance, expanding inclusive zoning would allow for affordable housing units to be built in the type of wealthy neighborhoods that have long excluded lower-income residents.
Alternatively, we could mobilize to pass a source-of-income nondiscrimination ordinance in Cuyahoga County Council. Currently, landlords can refuse to accept tenants who depend on Section 8 vouchers. These voucher-holders are, of course, low-income and largely black. Because of these restrictions, it is almost impossible for voucher-holders to move to good school districts. Our local fair housing organization has thoroughly researched and vetted an ordinance to address this practice, but County Council has not brought it to the table.
If Council is concerned about cost, eliminating tax abatements in hot real estate markets like Tremont and Ohio City would be at least one way to support the County coffers and end subsidizes for the already well-off.
Addressing lead poisoning is a crucial element of any systemic effort to redress housing disparities in our region. Currently, proactive testing to ensure that a unit is lead safe is limited. Instead, our city’s children are the lead detectors. A proposed ordinance that would require landlords to assess pre-1978 homes for lead has been sitting for on the desk of Cleveland City Council’s Development, Planning & Sustainability Committee. The bill’s not perfect, but the committee has not even given the bill’s proposal for mandatory testing a public hearing. (Disclosure: I was an attorney at Legal Aid when the organization drafted the bill at the request of ex-councilman Jeff Johnson.)
On a structural level, we could begin organizing to make our educational system more regional in order to break down the deepest barriers to equal opportunity in Northeast Ohio. Other parts of the country would find our disaggregated school system to be ineffective and bloated. Regionalizing the education system is a scary notion for parents who have made choices based on our region’s segregated and stratified school systems, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.
The national spotlight brought by a program like Serial is a chance to see our region with the piercing clarity of an outsider. And when we do, a vision for the future becomes clear: Northeast Ohio should become the first region to correct the structural inequalities that have been baked into our nation’s development since its founding, but particularly over the last 150 years. If we don’t, we risk perpetuating the same issues for the next 150.
Rebecca Maurer is an attorney who lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of the email newsletter SerialLand, which discusses Cleveland history and the intersection of economic justice and criminal justice issues in Northeast Ohio.
Cover image of Cleveland courthouse by Eric Drost (CC BY 2.0).
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