Cincinnati's Race Problem

Cincinnati may look like any other American city. We have our share of racial tension, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is causing problems here as elsewhere.

Cincinnati, however, is not like the others. The city has four unique attributes that will contribute to more problems over a longer period of time:

  1. The city is segregated,
  2. Local media limits reporting negative news,
  3. White guilt permeates policy, and
  4. The city government will bend to the threat of racial violence.

One cannot just point to statistics or a single news story to defend this. Only a series of events and personal experiences can lead one to this conclusion.

Recent events with a racial component include:

  • June 5: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) criticizes the lack of diversity in the Cincinnati Police Department’s higher ranks.
  • June 19: Cincinnati Police Officer Sonny Kim is shot and killed.
  • July 4: Christopher McKnight is beaten.
  • July 19: Samuel DuBose is shot and killed.
  • July 29: Officer Tensing is charged with murder.
  • August 9: Jordan Sanders is beaten.

Cincinnati mayor John Cranley said in June that blacks were under-represented in the top ranks of the police department. In my opinion, this was a racist statement born from Democrat Party politics and white guilt. It criticizes the police department because of skin color rather than merit. It diminishes officers’ effort and service. It calls into question any future promotions of black officers. Did he earn that promotion or was it his skin color? And it exposes a fracture in the city’s leadership, which has invited more racial conflict.

Just fourteen days later Cincinnati police officer Sonny Kim was shot and killed by a black man. He was the city’s first on-duty police fatality in 18 years. Fifteen days later Christopher McKnight was beaten unconscious by several black men a block from Fountain Square. Two officers were injured in the related scuffle with a larger mob of blacks.

Fifteen days later a white University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, shot and killed Samuel Debose, a black man trying to flee a traffic stop with two pounds of marijuana, several thousand dollars of drug money and a suspended license. In a very unusual display of panic and submission, the officer was immediately fired, and was charged with murder by prosecutor Joseph Deters (R) who weighed in on the shooting as “an asinine act” by someone who “should never have been a police officer.” I’m no lawyer, but I think those comments are unbecoming of a prosecutor and public official. While I believe the officer was criminally negligent, I think Deters is reaching with his murder charge. This charge has less to do with justice than with postponing racial violence. Deter’s irresponsible comments subject that officer to an unfair judicial process. He also set a precedent for how the government will likely react to questionable police actions in the future.

The leaders of Cincinnati sent a clear message of bias and fear, both of which embolden the criminal masses who consider violence and intimidation as options in this crisis-as-a-means race war. Dieter’s office had amassed as many as 75 charges against Dubose over the years. They chose to hold the behavior of a white person at a far higher standard than that of a black person. One can only conclude that in Cincinnati, if a white person commits a crime against a black person, and the crime attracts national media attention, he will be considered guilty until proven innocent.

The trend continues. Less than three weeks after Tensing was indicted for murder, 13-year old Jordan Sanders was beaten by several black kids at a church festival. Colin Flaherty, author of Don’t Make the Black Kids Angry, was the first to break the story of the Sanders assault. He posted the video of the attack on his YouTube account, which was briefly suspended.

Some may call my linking of these events dubious, but viewed with the perspective of someone who recently moved here, their linkage becomes unquestionable.

I was quick to discover the city’s racial segregation when I moved to Cincinnati from Los Angeles in 2008. The segregation seems to work for most, at least until a #BlackLivesMatters opportunity for race war comes along.

It wasn’t much later that I noticed the city keeps a lid on negative news in the local media. I saw this in the city’s business news reporting as early as 2009, and it has become glaringly obvious with this year’s racial news. I do not see how restricting discussion of race relations can lead to better race relations, but I can see how it limits criticism.

See for yourself. Go do a Google News search on “Cincinnati race relations,” and you will get one hit -- the Dubose shooting. “Cincinnati race attack” returns one Dubose link and one McKnight link. Of course, Google News only links to old-media sources.

I had an MBA classmate in Los Angeles who is very senior in the defense industry. I’ll call him Hawk. He and I were good friends during the program and we have socialized often since our graduation. Hawk is black.

While his career is awe-inspiring, the thing that impressed me most about Hawk was his commitment as a father. Hawk raised two young boys after he booted their drug-addicted mother out of the family. Both of his sons are college graduates and successful adults now. Hawk travels to several southern states for work, and is an avid international traveler. And he is as personable as they come. So I should have taken note in 2008 when I was moving my family to Cincinnati and I told Hawk to plan for a visit. He said “no” in a way I had never heard him say anything before. It was obvious at that point future invites would be pointless. I should have asked him why.

I learned more in my first three encounters with black people in Cincinnati. All three can be described the same: I was being friendly and conversational, and each person was overtly rude. I need to put this rudeness into context for you, as you are likely questioning the situations where this happened. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding?  Let me put it this way. The rudeness was shocking for two reasons:1) the immediacy and harshness of the reply, and 2) the ease with which the rudeness came. I would have to work at it to duplicate the severity of the rudeness I encountered with these three people. It was something I never experienced in Chicago where I lived for two decades, nor in Los Angeles where I lived for another two.

I spent several years in Cincinnati’s entrepreneur/startup community. These are high-risk endeavors that rarely succeed, and this was true of my startup. I’d like to point to a flaw in my business model or my chosen market or my team, but I cannot. After years of working with a particular investor, he declined with, “we prefer to invest in diversity.” 

The current #BlackLivesMatter news may cloud the fact that Cincinnati was the last city to have a race riot. In April 2001, the city fell into chaos after an unarmed black man was killed while resisting arrest. This happened before I moved to Cincinnati, and here is what I think happened based on the timeline and what I have seen since. The city leaders reacted to the riot by embracing the short-term appeasement of white guilt. They built a monolith between our football and baseball stadiums called The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It is the least occupied building in the city, with nearly all attendees (public school field trips) forced to visit. The Freedom Center was built in 2004 in response to the riots to pacify those who choose violence as a means-to-an-end. White guilt has dominated policy here ever since.

The city needs to consider trying something different. Something that will lead to long-term stability and respect. Specifically:

  • Lose the white guilt,
  • Stop lowering standards for behavior, and
  • Stop making decisions, statements and policy based on skin color.

Let’s give these a try and see what happens.

Last, I salute the officers who risked both injury and a larger riot as they raced into the violent mob to help McKnight. Heroes, every one.

Karl blogs at

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