The city illustrates, starkly, the challenges and opportunities of the country in 2020

By Chinenye Nkemere and Bethany Studenic

Cleveland will take center stage tonight, politically speaking, when Joe Biden and Donald Trump square off to present their visions for the future of our country against the backdrop of COVID-19, economic catastrophe, climate emergency, and a national reckoning on race. Cleveland is a majority-Black city in a Rust Belt swing state, nestled along one of the world’s largest sources of surface freshwater in the Great Lakes. In fact, there is perhaps no better setting to encapsulate this American moment.

So, while you’re looking in our direction, here are a few things you should know about Cleveland:

Cleveland is the poorest large city in America.

With a poverty rate of more than thirty percent—and a child poverty rate near fifty percent—Cleveland has the unfortunate honor of being the poorest large city in the country. The pandemic has only made this worse, as more than twice as many people in Cuyahoga County are living in poverty than at this time last year. Certainly, it would be impossible to hold a debate in this city without addressing such a staggering reality. 

Additionally, Black workers are paid less than their white counterparts, even when controlling for things like education and gender, and that wage gap has only gotten worse in the last decade. National titans of industry have long lamented a “lack of Black talent” within their workforce pipelines, but still refuse to acknowledge the systemic pay barriers and racial discrimination that support this inequity. Which leads us to our next point…

The city continues to be economically and racially segregated.

Like the rest of Ohio and the Rust Belt, Cleveland is riddled with the after-affects of redlining and white flight. The pattern in this Great Migration city is clear: white outer-ring suburbs, then inner-ring, impoverished, mostly ethnic neighborhoods, then a downtown designed for commerce and showmanship. The legacy of racist redlining can be seen today in formerly-redlined areas of the city, where continued disinvestment is reflected in high poverty and crime rates.

One important outcome of this segregation: Cleveland is a majority-minority city, but positions of economic, business, and civic power in our city have long been overwhelmingly occupied by white men who make many of the civic, non-profit, and economic decisions for Cleveland residents. Will the candidates engage these traditions of segregation and marginalization, or ignore their effects?

Cleveland is the worst city in America for Black women.

In terms of education, healthcare, and economic opportunity, Black women are doing worse in Cleveland than anywhere else. And Black babies and mothers are dying at an alarming rate in traditional hospitals. The mortality rate for Black infants in Cleveland is about three times that of white infants, controlled for socio-economics, and Black women are between three and four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. On the national stage, women’s health, especially Black women’s health, is relegated to niche corners.

The above statistics give us a glimpse into the barriers faced by Black women, but not necessarily what it’s like to live as a Black woman in the city. We are currently surveying Black women and femmes in Cleveland to better understand their lived experiences. In the meantime, the question remains: will the candidates be asked about this tonight? Will their visions for the future of the country take into account the experiences of Black women?

Cleveland is a case study in police violence and systemic injustice.

Tonight, the candidates will likely discuss the state-sanctioned killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, along with protests and retaliation in cities across the country. In Cleveland, we have lost Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, and Malissa Williams, and others both named and unnamed. The city is still under a federally-mandated consent decree, initiated after the Department of Justice found a pattern of abuse in the police department and justice system. If you ask Black community members here if there has been real, tangible reform, the answer will be a resounding no.

Cleveland lawyer and activist Rebecca Maurer has written previously about solutions to the city’s criminal justice woes. Locally, efforts like The Bail Project-Cleveland and [unBail] are dedicated to helping poor, disenfranchised, and over-cited Cleveland residents navigate pretrial justice and the complex legal system. Will twenty-first century solutions to public safety be explored tonight? Or will the candidates simply focus on violence through coded language, blaming marginalized people for their own oppression?

Cleveland is lagging in access to quality education, especially when it comes to online resources.

The ‘digital divide’ is real in Cleveland. As Americans across the country queue up election coverage on their mobile devices, Cleveland residents want to remind non-residents that our city is the worst-connected city with a population of more than a hundred thousand people. Cleveland has always lagged behind its counterparts in this area, but the problem has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, which directly affects Cleveland Metropolitan School District students and families relying on quality and high speed internet access for school lessons and wrap-around services.

Digital exclusion joins ongoing segregation as a persistent problem for Cleveland’s educational system. According to education reporting site 74 Million, “more than a third of households nationally with less than $20,000 in annual income have no internet. But that percentage drops dramatically as income rises. Once income hits $50,000 or more, only 10 percent of households don’t have internet.” The median income for Cleveland residents is $29,000 in 2018 dollars.

COVID-19 has exacerbated health disparities in the city.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, frontline workers have become talking points for both candidates. In Cleveland, restaurant workers and bus drivers are among the groups that have struggled to navigate the twin economic and health effects of the pandemic. And, from the beginning, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Cleveland’s Black residents.

At a recent White House briefing, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams made note that many African American and Hispanic residents bear the brunt of COVID-19 illness and death, and also tend not to have the type of jobs that allow them to remain at home or telework. When the candidates discuss the catastrophe of COVID-19, will they have a plan to help frontline workers and marginalized communities not only survive, but recover?

Cleveland is on the cusp of climate emergency.

Cleveland is already seeing the effects of climate change. According to Peter Whiting, a scientist at Case Western Reserve, the city is at least a degree warmer than it was thirty years ago. Whiting says the city is on track to become swampier, with longer summers and shorter winters. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History warns of dangerous extreme weather events and habitat and ecosystem loss; meanwhile, Lake Erie has been hosting massive, toxic algae blooms for decades. The effects of climate change, too, are especially harmful for poor communities and communities of color.

But Clevelanders persist.

Tonight, on the Cleveland Clinic campus, two white men will take center stage to discuss their visions for the future of the nation—visions about who belongs, who doesn’t, and what rights should be afforded to them. Meanwhile, outside, protesters will gather to express their concerns. History tells us that they will be cordoned off, pushed aside—perhaps violently—to make room for the main event. It’s a version of Cleveland long visible to Black women and other marginalized communities: hide the ugly parts, play up the good parts for the sake of reputation.

Yet and still, Clevelanders are endlessly creative. We’ve had to be. The people here—the ones you don’t hear from, those who aren’t running all these systems—they have a level of resilience that is unrivaled. There is an abundance of unrecognized talent and brilliance in our classrooms and living rooms and breakout rooms. We’ve made homes out of brownfields. We’ve carved opportunity out of leftovers. We’ve been left to clean up the ruins of economic exploitation. There is no replacement for the grit and ingenuity of Clevelanders.

In other words, if we want to solve the problems plaguing this country, Cleveland is the place to start. We are facing the greatest challenges with a tenacity worthy of our Rust Belt history. In Cleveland, we can foster new talent and ideas that build new economies, address inequality, and make change. This is the lab. But we have to look outward from the debate stage, to those on the margins. The promise of our city—and of the country writ large—lies with those who thrive here in the face of generations of racism, discrimination, and inequality. The truth is, we have been center stage all along. ■



Bethany Studenic holds a Bachelors in Social Work, a Masters in Social Administration, and a Juris Doctor. Bethany has more than ten years in community change experience, heading up highly visible social and research based movements, and has worked with a variety of diverse populations through direct experience. Bethany is an accomplished fundraiser, government relations professional, community strategist, researcher and policy analysis expert.

Chinenye (ChiChi) Nkemere is a strategic thinker with more than ten years of experience in community and digital engagement and advocacy. ChiChi holds a Bachelors in Political Science and African/African American Studies from The Ohio State University and spent time in Houston as a Teach for America educator. As a public safety and workplace advocate, she is dedicated to progressive and transformative community development.

Cover image by Erik Drost (creative commons).

*Commentary pieces are the work of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.

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