by Daniel J. McGraw 

When I am talking to people in the Cleveland area, and they ask where I’m from, I tell them Euclid, and they sort of make a face and mutter, “Oh.”  You know, one of those places that has gone from nondescript suburb to sort of a crappy one over time, a place that never had an “it” factor even in its best days, and over time has gotten old and weathered and beaten up a bit.

But when I talk to folks who grew up in Euclid about the present day situation in their hometown, their reaction is a little more emotive in a pissed off way. “Have you seen it lately?” they ask shaking their heads. And the question is not about how the roads are or quality of the bars on East 185th St.; by “it,” my white friends and I are talking about “them.”  And them would be “those people” who we see walking around who are not of our color.

When I go back and drive around, I don’t see that much difference in a physical sense: the post WWII tract housing is still as boring as it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and the retail area around East 222 St. and Lakeshore Blvd. is still full of stores and there are lots of people shopping. The parks are nice and people play in softball leagues and swim at the beaches.

But if you are white you do see the difference immediately. The people living in those houses and shopping at those stores and picnicking at those parks are often African American. And for those who grew up in a different era, those different faces stand out. In 1970, Euclid was homogenous white suburban America at its core, with less than one percent African-American residents. The latest numbers put Euclid’s African-American population at about 52 percent.

[blocktext align=”left”]Because what is happening these days is no longer white flight; that ended decades ago. What is happening now is “black flight,” African-Americans moving from the central city wastelands to the inner-ring suburbs.[/blocktext] In the past few days, as I’ve watched the events unfold in Ferguson, MO, I think of Euclid and other inner-ring suburbs across the country that are dealing with substantial social demographic change and the upheaval that goes with it. In Ferguson, an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a police officer and as the details emerge, Mr. Brown appears to have been unarmed and showing little probable cause for even being arrested.

All we know for sure at this point is that the young man was stopped for walking in the middle of the street by an officer, and Brown was then shot multiple times and killed. The investigation is continuing amid the controversy.

A civil rights lawyer called it “an execution in broad daylight,” and there have been protests and police arming themselves like army rangers and looting of stores and even a couple of journalists arrested in a McDonald’s while they were trying to recharge their laptops. It is a powder keg that may blow up more than it already has.

What amazes me as I look at this Ferguson incident from afar, is why this racial powder keg in the American suburbs hasn’t blown sooner. Because what is happening these days is no longer white flight; that ended decades ago. What is happening now is “black flight,” African-Americans moving from the central city wastelands to the inner-ring suburbs. And many in those suburbs are still hanging on to a notion of the upwardly striving idyll, the hard-work-in-the-factory and mow-the-lawn mentality that never really existed that much in the first place.

Ferguson and Euclid are very much alike. Single family home building and redlining by banks made these places where blue-collar whites could live and work amongst each other without those blacks from the inner city whom many whites sought to escape. There were jobs at places like Lincoln Electric in Euclid and Emerson Electric in Ferguson, and freeways that took you in and out quickly.

But over time, the younger folks didn’t see how great this staid suburban lifestyle really was, the redlining eased up a bit, housing rentals became more abundant, and minorities moved in. The population got older and poorer over time, and suburbs like these were unaccustomed and even hostile to the changes. They went from thinking about parking spots at shopping malls to food pantries and public transportation.

Ferguson was 85 percent white in 1980, and is now 29 percent white, almost identical to the Euclid numbers. The main high schools in each city are now more than 75 percent African American. But even with a majority of the population African American, both Euclid and Ferguson’s city council and school boards are white by substantial margins. Both cities have a poverty rate of about 20 percent. And with higher poverty comes higher crime rates, more need for social services, different educational programs, and a police presence that is very different than when most residents were pulling eight hour shifts at the factory and mowing their lawns on the weekends.

The problem is that these suburbs used to be insulated from the problems they used to associate with the inner city: poverty, social disorder, drugs, and violence. And their business and political leadership – mostly white – often harkens back to “what it was” and how they need to get back there. And for a lot of the population, the good old days ended when the blacks moved in.

And this is where they miss the point, and where that “have you seen it lately” comes into play. I don’t know about Ferguson, but Euclid started going downhill when a lot of the factory jobs left 20 years or so ago and the population declined. Euclid Square Mall opened in 1977, but most of the retail had left by the mid-2000s. Housing prices declined and many are underwater with respect to appraisal values.

Many whites point to these declines as having taken place when the race of the city changed, but those changes were happening in other urban areas without any race factor as well  When jobs go, income levels decline, poverty increases, and all the problems that come with those changes come into play. Housing prices went down to a large extent because of the burst in the housing bubble and bad lending practices, and that didn’t just happen in Euclid and Ferguson. Suburban shopping malls were closing and being torn down all over the country because too many Americans found them inconvenient.

Politically, these former white blue-collar suburbs find themselves in a sort of a no man’s land. Their union affiliation, which as they grew up made them mostly Democrat,  turned Republican as they aged. With increased minority population and higher poverty, they are leaning Dem again. But neither party is paying much attention to the inner-ring suburbs on the racial change cusp: these older suburbs have older white voters who are dying off, and younger minority voters who aren’t voting much. Neither group has much money, and therefore, little clout.

It is not a situation that shows much hope or understanding at this point. These inner-ring suburbs are becoming flash points given our American racial disparity obsession that shows no signs of decline. Blacks complain police unfairly target them with racial profiling, stopping them in their cars and and questioning them when they are walk down the street. Whites blame the blacks for the increase in Dollar Stores and decrease in property values.

Whites see the looting of the convenience stores in Ferguson and are horrified that people would do such a thing. Some of my black friends don’t like it much either, but they “understand” why, because of the pent-up frustration coursing through the veins.

And in this mess a young man near St. Louis was shot and killed. While no one knows exactly what the circumstances were at this point, I can say with certainty that the racial tensions in places like Euclid and Ferguson have been building for some time. Because race was why these places existed and grew in the first place, and race is now being blamed for their downfall.

And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that racial attitudes are not based in any real facts, but on perception. You see what you want to see. And these days, in these aging suburbs, both sides see things very differently. Those views are not going to change any time soon.

Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Saoshyant.