This post was contributed by Youngstown resident Sean Posey. Part one of the series was published last week.
The disappearance of jobs, the decline of schools, social isolation, and the rise of the drug trade took a frightful toll on inner city areas. Youngstown fared among the worst. Youngstown’s murder rate—which remained unexceptional for decades—skyrocketed during the 1990s. In 1991, the homicide rate for Youngstown was 60 per 100,000, whereas the country as a whole averaged only 10 per 100,000. In 1995, Youngstown had more homicides than the city of Pittsburgh. Though the crime has widely fluctuated, the city remains known for its high crime and murder rate.
Sociologist William Julius Wilson’s work has outlined the importance of historical data when examining inner city violence: “Unlike the present period, inner city communities prior to 1960 exhibited features of social organization—including a sense of community, positive neighborhood identification, and explicit norms and sanctions against aberrant behavior.” What we are witnessing now in urban centers like Youngstown is a recent phenomena and it sources are complex and multifaceted: Job loss, social isolation, family breakdown, concentrated poverty, and institutional discrimination. However, there is cause for hope.
Since the civil rights era a vibrant and productive black middle class has emerged in this country. Many of the gaps in achievement between the races narrowed significantly by the 1990s. Also, inner city crime and violence has declined. Urban centers like New York—a city once known for crime—have made immense turnarounds. Yet regions of the country vary widely in measures of success.
Inner city problems now tend to be the very worst in the Rust Belt. Industrial cities in the north exhibit among the highest levels of segregation and the worst of quality of life indicators for non-white populations. Youngstown is indicative of that with some of the biggest disparities in racial health indexes, highest levels of infant mortality for African Americans, and the worst school district in the state of Ohio. It’s deeply remiss to not point out the striking gaps in this area that separate us from most of the country.
What can be done? We can start by pointing out the tremendous success that has been achieved by members of our African American community, often despite substantial hurdles. We can reengage with communities of color and build venues for increased interaction between the races. We can start recognizing that despite such grim conditions in our central city it is but a small minority of citizens of color who are committing these heinous crimes. We can also do everything in our power to break down walls between the city and the suburbs and end the balkanization that plagues this region. We are not fully at the mercy of economic changes and the mistakes of history. We hold the power in our own hands, the power to both unite this community across color and economic lines and begin to realize that these are everyone’s problems—or we can remain on the path we are on—a path that will surely reduce our area to ruin.
This quote from Youngstown resident Nathaniel Jones, which originally addressed the problems engulfing Youngstown in the 1960s, probably sums up the situation we find ourselves in better than any I’ve heard. For these words could easily speak for Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, or nearly any other Rust Belt city just as well.
“The city is not large enough, our suburbs not distant enough, no person among us wealthy enough, nor anyone’s skin white enough to gain a sanctuary from the effects of discrimination, deprivation, and denial.”