|“If I criticize George’s (council president Forbes) leadership, then he attempts to paint it as criticism and betrayal of the black community as a whole. Like I’m some Uncle Tom.” — Jeff Johnson, Cleveland city councilman
I deeply respect what the older generation has done... but they could see and identify their enemy—segregation, blatant discrimination. The enemy of my generation is harder to identify. We face an economic fight. — Michael White, state senator and mayoral candidate
Judge Carl Stokes is stalking around his chamber, showing frustration and speaking of betrayal. His anger is directed at the new generation of young black adults who have risen from the economic underclass, who benefited from the civil rights movement but were not among its ranks in its most harrowing days.|
“They are a generation of ingrates,” says Stokes, who in 1967 was elected mayor of Cleveland and the first black mayor of any major American city. “They are blind to our history and choose not to see the conditions under which many of our own are living in the present. They are materialistic, selfish. They have not carried on my generation’s fight because most of them don’t even know there is one.”
On their behalf, this new generation of young and successful black adults—in general demographic terms they range from 25 to 40 years old and have achieved some measure of professional success—say they are aware their parents protested, fought and even died to give them a better life than they had. But they say now that they have this better life, their elders seem to be damning them for it.
Many also believe some of Cleveland’s former civil rights leaders have abandoned the fight of the black majority in favor of their own personal gain. They say those leaders and a small circle of friends have constructed a black establishment, an exclusive power elite.
“It’s a myth that the old leaders are still the real leaders of the black community,” says Earl Blount, a young black entrepreneur and political operative. “What they’ve done is formed their own version of the old boy network to protect their own vested interests in public sector contracts. Hey, it’s an old story. The rich get richer.”
The schism between the two generations of successful blacks seems to be deepening and becoming rancorous. And both generations agree that in an increasingly competitive and unforgiving economy dominated by white business and political interests, blacks cannot afford a widening of this breach.
Like Blount, Jeff Johnson, the young black city councilman, was too young to have been a leader of the civil rights movement. “My generation grew up with white friends, has white coworkers,” Johnson says. “The fight for my generation is to end the economic segregation of black people. The problem of the black underclass is now one of economics, though racial prejudice remains a primary factor in that economic struggle. It’s now more a problem of class than race”
“Is it a problem of race or class?” says George Forbes, simultaneously angry and amused. Forbes is the president of Cleveland City Council and the city’s most powerful black businessman. Like Stokes, he is a member of the civil rights generation. “The question itself is garbage somebody pulled out of a college sociology book. Race is the reality. Was and is. White prejudice. White hatred. I might be a lawyer, council president, be worth however much money. I’m still a nigger — period — to that guy in West Park who works at the Ford or Chevy plant.”
The two generations share a raw and inexhaustible anger because they live in a city where the majority of blacks are poor and uneducated. Nationally, this black underclass is now being described as permanent. Urban sociologists are saying that the poor, at least the black poor, will always be with us.
Earl Blount asks, almost in tears: “How can my people have been in this country for more than 200 years and still not share in its vast wealth? How is this possible? Jews. Orientals. Arabs. Italians. The Irish. How come we’re not sitting at the table with them and sharing the wealth?”
Blount is right—most blacks are not sharing in the wealth. Certainly not in Cleveland.
According to figures presented to the Greater Cleveland Roundtable — a corporate-sponsored biracial committee of business people — and compiled by Norman Bliss, president of Poly Tech (a minority-owned consulting engineering firm), black-owned businesses in the Greater Cleveland area had approximately $375 million in gross sales in 1987. But 90 percent of that revenue came from public sector contracts, with the City of Cleveland responsible for $100 million of that figure.
So, only 10 percent of the revenue generated by black businesses in 1987 was earned outside what some critics call the “artificial shelter” of public contracts —contracts that often go to minorities by virtue of set-aside and affirmative action policies, or political brokering. Therefore, the presence of black-owned businesses in Cleveland’s private sector appears to be almost negligible.
According to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau and Black Enterprise magazine, Cleveland ranks only 32nd among U.S. cities in terms of a healthy climate for black businesses.
It’s also clear that some blacks are making it. Nationally, though still comparatively small as an overall percentage, the middle class is the fastest growing segment of the black population.
And many of those successful blacks living in Cleveland, of either generation, are aware they have a responsibility toward their community by virtue of their own prosperity. “It doesn’t matter if you think whites are racist, or simply insensitive or indifferent,” says Ken Jackson, a financial management coordinator for the Cleveland Clinic. “If we don’t help our own, it’s not going to happen. I think we’re on our own
Many young blacks like Jackson believe his generation has barely addressed its responsibilities, let alone fulfilled them. His parents’ generation can point to what they have done for the black community. When his parents were young, the Cleveland Public School system was legally segregated, there were restaurants at which blacks could not eat, hotels where they could not sleep, jobs for which they could not compete. His parents’ generation changed much of that.
“I deeply respect what th6 older generation has done,” says Michael White, state senator and mayoral candidate. “They opened the doors I now walk through. But they could see and identify their enemy — segregation, blatant discrimination. The enemy of my generation is harder to identify. We face an economic fight.”
“When you fight in the field of race,” says Jeff Johnson, “you get symbolic, not economic victories. If my generation can succeed in this economic fight we can do more for blacks than even the civil rights movement did.”
Many whites assume that institutional racism has been radically reduced. Young blacks say that if it no longer exists in its most malevolent forms, it can still be found in corporate Cleveland in other guises.
After graduating from Cleveland State University, Ron Harris entered a management-training program with Society National Bank.
He saw that partly as a response to complaints from the black community that the branches in their neighborhood were staffed by black tellers but predominantly white managers, yet all the blacks in the training program were being herded into retail banking. Harris wanted to go into commercial banking, a more sophisticated pursuit. “But it wasn’t till I let it be known that I felt I was being discriminated against that they allowed me to enter the commercial lending program. Now, a few years later, you will find blacks in commercial lending. But guess what? Now the action and money is in investment banking products. And you’ll find few blacks in that aspect of banking in Cleveland today. So, it’s like we’re always trying to catch up, always getting the crumbs,”
Other examples of racism or insensitivity are even more subtle. “Maybe it’s just a cultural matter of your white boss being more comfortable with his white employees,” says Lonnie Sloan, a tax manager with Parker Hannifin Corporation. “But that can effect your ability to rise within the organization. Maybe you’re the only one who doesn’t get invited to a party—and later when you bring it up they say they just didn’t think you’d want to come. What can be the worst is not knowing if a superior is giving you a hard time because you’re not doing your job or because you’re black. Maybe you just don’t know and maybe he doesn’t either. You don’t know if you should doubt him or yourself.”
Still, blacks are being hired into positions and at levels of compensation not remotely possible in corporate Cleveland 20 years ago. As an example, Dr. Charles E. Taylor of BP America, who was recently honored as Cleveland’s Black Professional of the Year, is considered the highest ranking black in the oil industry in the world.
But most young blacks agree that their economic task will have to be centered upon the creation of black wealth through black-owned businesses.
Arnold Pinkney is a partner in the largest black-owned insurance agency in Cleveland and was Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign manager in 1984. He describes a bleak economic landscape for new black businesses in Cleveland in the 1990s.
He says there were more black-owned businesses in Cleveland prior to the civil rights era than there are now; segregation meant blacks had to patronize black businesses, but many of those businesses have fallen in the wake of competition from larger, white-owned businesses. Additionally, many of the black businesses that remain cannot attract the best and brightest of the current young black generation because they cannot afford the salaries that white-owned corporations will pay them.
And Pinkney says that young black entrepreneurs will struggle for capital. He points out that local studies have shown that middle-class blacks have a much higher loan rejection rate than their white middle-class counterparts, that middle-class blacks are turned down by Cleveland banks at the same rate as poor whites.
Pinkney says that civil rights was a social rights movement that eventually brought political gains to the black community—the election of Carl Stokes as mayor; his brother, Louis Stokes, as a congressman; Forbes as council president—but has not been translated into economic gains.
Most young Cleveland blacks interviewed for this story agree with Pinkney on every point except his last—they believe the civil rights movement did bring about some economic gains but, again, only for an elite sliver of the black population.
Many young blacks speak in terms of whether they are a “connected or unconnected black.” Greg Clifford, a referee in the Cleveland Municipal Court system, says, “I’m an unconnected black but I’m trying to become connected. I know how crucial it is.” By “connected;’ Clifford means having ties to the black power structure.
Carolyn Jones, director of the civil division of the municipal clerk of courts, asserts, “Because I’m an unconnected black I feel like I stand more of a chance of being judged on my merits by the white establishment than by the black establishment.”
An ambitious and prospering young black businessman says privately that if you are not connected and refuse to play the kickback and patronage game, you will not be given access to public sector deals that flow through hands of the city’s established black politicians. “Quote me by name,” he says, “and my business is dead.”
Hosiah Huggins is a young entrepreneur who runs a marketing consulting firm, Insights and Attitudes. He talks about George Forbes with a mixture of reverence and fear, speaks of him as the man who could, if he chose, make or break Huggins’ fortunes.
“In Cleveland’s black community;’ Huggins says “when we speak of leadership we are speaking almost exclusively about political leadership. We have few real business leaders. If jobs or contracts are to be created for blacks, we look to George to use his power to cut a deal with white developers. He’ll say to the Jacobs brothers, ‘Yeah, I’ll get you that abatement or that UDAG, but you have to give 30 percent of the contracts and jobs to my people.’ Look at all the development going on downtown. How many black developers are involved? Nada. Zero.”
It is Forbes’ power to create those contracts and jobs that is the source of praise from many members of his generation and the source of criticism from many of his younger detractors.
But some young black politicians such as White and Johnson— others, including three black council members, share this belief but will not speak for attribution say it is through this power that Forbes has given only a select group access to these business opportunities.
“Look,” Forbes says, “there would have to be three of me to be involved in all the contract steering I’m accused of. We saw to it that about $80 million in contracts went to black-owned firms last year. I’m proud of my role in that, but no way could I could keep track of it all. Johnson and White complain I’m not doing enough for the majority of our people. I think $80 million is better than the nothing black businessmen might be receiving if we weren’t as vigilant as we are in seeing that black folks get their fair share.”
Forbes also says that recent Supreme and federal court rulings that threaten existing set-aside and affirmative action laws will make strong black political leaders who can make deals with white developers even more crucial to the success of struggling black businesses.
If anything, Forbes may be too modest when he addresses the importance he and other black political leaders such as Congressman Louis Stokes have in assisting black-owned businesses. The numbers Norman Bliss compiled showing that 90 percent of black business revenues came from the public sector are astonishing. And very disappointing if you are a young black entrepreneur and it is true that “unconnected” blacks are excluded from vying for those contracts.
Forbes contends that whatever his influence over public and private contracts may be, it represents only a small slice of the available economic pie. “Instead of complaining about who’s getting a bite of the little piece black folks have, the young generation needs to help make that piece bigger.”
Johnson, White and others retort that Forbes is essentially saying—We got ours, you get your own.
Johnson claims Forbes uses the issue of race against Johnson and other blacks critical of his leadership in the same way he has used it against white politicians. “If I criticize George’s leadership,” Johnson says, “then he attempts to paint it as criticism and betrayal of the black community as a whole. Like I’m some Uncle Tom.”
Carolyn Jones says when she went into a public housing project in Councilwoman Fannie Lewis’ ward to explain to tenants how they could put their rent in escrow with the court, Lewis told her constituents not to trust Jones and condemned her for not first obtaining her permission. “I didn’t know I had to have a pass,” Jones says. “With the black establishment you get no respect unless you represent a sufficient level of threat. Which I don’t. Yet”
But when it comes to the issue of political confrontation, many young blacks interviewed hesitated to side with the methods of a Johnson or Jones, “I know what Johnson is saying,” says Ron Harris, “but I think black people should keep their problems within the family as much as possible. Keep it private. Whites have enough ammunition they like to use against us as it is.” Ken Jackson agrees, adding: “I think Jeff is right about some things, but he needs to learn patience and pay his dues.”
Johnson points to White as evidence that paying your dues is not really all the black establishment expects from young black leaders if they wish to be taken seriously. White was once Forbes’ protégé and heir-apparent. But now that he is an announced candidate for mayor, White can’t get the time of day let alone financial or political support from the city’s older black leaders. And Forbes himself is considering a run for mayor.
Even Ralph Tyler, executive director of the Roundtable, whom some say is beholden to Forbes for his position, admits, “It’s true that for young black leaders, Cleveland is a desert.”
Forbes finds the complaint that he is not helping to nurture young black political leadership both funny and naive. “Who’s saying that? Johnson? White? I can just picture them grooming someone to take their place. They’re probably doing it even as we speak. This isn’t about expanding the gains of the few unto the many. This is about power. And power is never something somebody gives you. Hell,” he says, laughing, “it’s hard enough to stay standing without helping somebody climb up your back.”
Carl Stokes agrees. “Power is not bequeathed. Power is a thing you have to take.” He unlocks a cabinet and produces a newspaper clip from 1967 that shows that only a few months before he was elected the first black mayor of a major American city—with the fervor of the civil rights movement sweeping through the nation — not one of the 10 black city councilmen were supporting him in the election. “Johnson and White face nothing new. You create power or go without it.”
The younger generation knows that eventually, if only by default, it will come to power. Forbes, for example, says if he doesn’t run for mayor this year he will retire from politics. “Time neutralizes everybody and everything,” Johnson says. “We’ll get our shot.”
With the new generation’s power will come an inheritance.
The older black generation will leave a legacy of human rights achievements; it attacked and overcame many of the degradations of white racism.
But young blacks also will inherit a city nearly bereft of a black middle class and black role models; though the media has focused on “white flight” to the suburbs, the black middle class also has migrated from the city. Half the city’s black residents are poor and the poverty rate in each of the city’s black wards has doubled or tripled in the last decade. Seventy percent of the children in the public school system come from families living below the poverty level. Half of the children in the system will not graduate and will spawn a new cycle of poverty. The leading cause of death among young black men in Cleveland is homicide ... the waves of horrific facts about the city’s black economic underclass keep coming.
Earl Blount says his generation can only insure the survival of the black race by assembling the necessary economic machinery. “It all comes down to money,” he says. “If you don’t know that, you didn’t grow up in America.”
Carl Stokes says, “It’s still the same old fight it always was. Money has always been an essential part of being free in this country.”
Stokes was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., who remains a powerful symbol to both the young and old generations of blacks. King said, “Freedom is an expensive thing.”
But the price seems to keep climbing.