Causes of racial inequity are identifiable and fixable, experts say

Jordan Laird and Ismail Turay, Dayton Daily News, Ohio
·9 min read

Feb. 28—Black people in the Dayton region fare worse on many measures of health, economics and education than their white neighbors and compared to communities across the country.

Finding solutions to the racism that is at the root of those inequities is critical to improving the lives of people of color and moving our entire region forward.

"We're all in this together and if the Dayton region is going to thrive and prosper, it's not going to be just one group or one part of the town," said Amaha Sellassie, a community organizer and sociologist at Sinclair Community College.

The Dayton Daily News investigates the most pressing issues facing our community. That's why we are launching a new project today, the Path Forward: Race and Equity. This story lays out some of the data that reveals the inequities that exist in our region. Over the next several months we will dig into why racist policies and programs persist in our region and examine solutions in the areas of health, jobs and the economy, public safety and criminal justice, housing and education.

Many of these disparities have persisted for many decades, and civil rights leaders locally and nationally have worked to correct them. But the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May led to protests in more than 30 communities across our region and a groundswell of support for changes.

"We kind of took these blinders off and said, 'You're right ... Black Americans, but also other marginalized communities, are not experiencing the same America as everyone else is," said Castel Sweet, a sociologist and director of community engagement and diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Dayton L. William Crotty Center.

In the past year, multiple governments and health departments in Southwest Ohio and the nation declared racism a public health crisis. The Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, representing the region's largest business voices, made a statement in support of such declarations.

Racism affects the entire community, Sweet said, even people who might not recognize it in their day-to-day lives.

"For example ... if everyone doesn't have a quality education, then our workforce is not as completely competent as it should be or as it could be, which then affects everyone," she said.

The Dayton region is among the 10 metro areas in the country with the highest concentration of Black children in very low-opportunity neighborhoods, according to a Brandeis University study.

The challenge, according to experts and community leaders, is reckoning with the reality that both historical and current racist policies and practices ― intentional or not ― create these unequal outcomes.

"People will often tell folks, 'Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,'" said Dr. Alonzo Patterson, a pediatrician in Dayton and past president of Gem City Medical Dental Pharmaceutical, an organization of African American and minority medical professionals in the Miami Valley. "Well, I would argue that a lot of people of color have been pulling on their bootstraps for a long, long time and oftentimes those bootstraps just fall off (because) they have been pulled on so much."

Health

Health statistics are some of the clearest indicators of the toll racism takes on minority people.

Black babies die at a rate more than double that of white babies in Montgomery County and across Ohio.

Black men in Montgomery County have an average life expectancy of 65.5 years, according to the 2019 Community Health Assessment by Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County. In comparison, white men typically live 71.6 years and white women 78 years.

That indicates a lack of access to adequate health care for minority individuals and their poorer living conditions, said Patterson. The community needs to increase the availability of quality and affordable health care providers in disadvantaged neighborhoods, he said, as well as increase the number of minority practitioners.

But health care is only one piece of the puzzle. Factors such as access to a quality education, well-paying job, affordable and safe housing and nutritious food contribute to an individual's health, Patterson said. These factors are often referred to as the social determinants of health.

Declaring racism a public crisis is an acknowledgement of the reality that the Miami Valley is inhospitable to Black and minority residents, Patterson said, and a step toward addressing social determinants of health.

Jobs and economy

Black people represent a little more than 40% of Dayton's population, but they lag behind white people in terms of income, wealth and financial stability ― gaps that have likely widened during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Eddie Koen, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwest Ohio.

But he is encouraged by the coalition of people now who genuinely want to tackle economic inequities like never before, he said.

The median household income is more than $20,000 higher for white residents than Black people in Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties, according to pre-pandemic U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2015-2019.

The percentage of Black people living below the poverty level was more than double that of white residentsin poverty in Montgomery, Miami and Greene counties, census data says.

The Black unemployment rate of 13.1% in the Dayton metro area is more than twice the rate of white workers .

Dayton region employers want to diversify their workforce but have trouble finding diverse employees, said Chris Kershner, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber's minority business partnership has worked the past decade to advocate for diversity and help large purchasing organizations develop their supply chain diversity plans, he said.

Companies such as Premier Health created an equity plan that calls for such things as leveraging their internal talent pipeline and increasing the diversity of their workforce so that it mirrors the communities they serve, said Stacey Lawson, director of human resources.

The city of Dayton developed a plan to bring employment opportunities closer to the city's Black community as a way of addressing the employment gap, said Ford Weber, director of economic development. They're in the process of redeveloping brownfield tracks of land such as the Wright-Hangar factory site in West Dayton, and a company called Economy Linen recently announced that its building a facility there, he said.

Public safety and criminal justice

The protests following Floyd's killing focused on policing reforms.

Advocates like the Black Lives Matter Dayton chapter and the NAACP Dayton Unit have made demands that have not been met by all area departments, including purchasing body cameras for all officers and eliminating Dayton's gunshot-detection system.

Since the summer protests in Dayton and surrounding suburbs, some steps have been taken. Citizens committees in Dayton and other communities in the region — including Huber Heights, Yellow Springs and Fairborn — have been established to review, among other parts of city government, police department policies with a lens on equity.

Dayton, Vandalia, Kettering, Butler Twp. and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office have launched programs that partner officers with mental health professionals. The goal is to get help for people in crisis instead of sending them to jail.

Housing and neighborhoods

The Dayton region remains segregated, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.

Neighborhoods, geography and where people live in the greater Dayton region is connected directly with issues of racism and equality due to the Miami Valley's history of segregation, including redlining and white flight.

Dayton is the 23rd most segregated of the 90 largest metro areas in the U.S. with a Black population of at least 3%, according to an analysis of census data conducted by William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings.

Dayton minorities have a homeownership rate of 35.6% while white residents have a homeownership rate of 57.2%, according to a recent report by Construction Coverage.

"(Housing is) one of the areas that's so close to that root of our issue here, that needs some more attention than we are actually giving it," Sweet said. "It's more difficult to address because it's so close to the root issues."

Redlining was a discriminatory practice in the 1900s. The federal government drew maps of cities that color-coded neighborhoods by race, marking minority neighborhoods as red, meaning high risk for bank loans. Banks used those maps to deny loans or charge higher rates to residents within redlined neighborhoods, as well as prevent them from moving to other neighborhoods.

That meant families lost the opportunity to create wealth, Sweet said.

"We know that wealth generation for a long time in the U.S. was kind of dependent on home ownership. ... And then again, the lost opportunity for all of the jobs that may have left that particular community due to devaluation of a neighborhood or may not even have considered coming to a community due to the devaluation of that neighborhood," she said.

Education

Dayton Public Schools, with its more than 66% Black student population, recognizes that an education gap exists among its pupils, and the district is doing something about it.

Several years ago DPS started an audit that it hopes will close the gaps so that it serves all students equitably, said Sharon Goins, the district's equity director. The goal is to create a process of implementing equity systemically and sustainably. The data collection will involve parents, students, teachers and other outside stakeholders, she said.

The issue of education gap is not unique to the Dayton region; it has plagued the country for generations, experts say. From the time the nation was founded, it was illegal for Black people to get an education, said Lawrence Burnley, vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of Dayton.

"It was structured ignorance," Burnley said. "It was intentional and purposeful illiteracy, because our value was tied to what we brought in terms of an unpaid labor force, and literacy only began to creep in to the extent that it had value toward our ability to do certain jobs on a plantation economy and then later as industrial civilization began to emerge."

Although educating Black people became legal post slavery, continued racist policies and inequities created an education gap that exists today, Burnley and other experts say.

Gerrymandering, segregated schools and poverty continue to widened the education gap between Black and white students today, experts said.

In Ohio, Black students achieve 21% less than their white counterparts, according to the annual Ohio Education by the Numbers report.

Understanding that complex and tragic history that can be traced to the creation of racist ideas to support slavery is critical, Burnley said.

"What are we doing as a community to prepare our students to learn the truth about their history, to have exposure to the brilliance and beauty and extraordinary history of Black people?" he said.

About the Path Forward

Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as pressing issues facing our community. The Path Forward project seeks solutions to these problems by investigating race and equity in the Dayton region. Follow our work at DaytonDailyNews.com/path-forward.