Former journalist says ‘poverty is no accident’

Mark Curnutte, Special to The Enquirer
Published 10:20 p.m. ET April 7, 2021

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Mark Curnutte is a visiting instructor of social justice and journalism at Miami University. (Photo: Enquirer file)

Editor’s note: To mark the 20th anniversary of Timothy Thomas’ death and the unrest that followed, The Enquirer asked people to reflect on what’s changed, what hasn’t and why Cincinnati and other communities continue to struggle with race and policing. 

I spent most of my 25 years as an Enquirer reporter interviewing and writing about African Americans and people living in poverty.

Regardless where I found myself – Avondale, West End, with Central American immigrants in Carthage, Mauritanian refugees in Forest Park, poor white people in East End or South Fairmount – I couldn’t escape one fact: We live in two nations, unequal, racially separate, and often in conflict

More: 20 years after Timothy Thomas, civil unrest, we still talk about progress and work to be done

When I started teaching social justice and sociology courses in 2017 at Miami University, my reporting gained formality. I read in books what I’d seen on the street. The intersection of racism and poverty is no accident.

One explanation came from the parable “Mr. Rich White and Mr. Poor White strike a bargain,” adapted from a chapter in Lillian Smith’s 1949 book, “Killers of the Dream.”

“Two jobs need to be done,” Mr. Rich White said. “I will tend to making the money. Your job is to keep the Black man – and the Latino, Asian, Indigenous man, and women, too – in their place. Show them who’s boss. If you do that, I will make sure you’ll always be a little bit better off than him.”

The arrangement, the parable continues, not only covers business and industry but all social institutions: lending and banking, real estate and housing, employment, education, voting, heath care, everything, including criminal justice and law enforcement. “But,” Mr. Rich White said, “you won’t see me anywhere. I’ll stay behind the scenes.”

So why does American society continue to see tense and often deadly interactions between African Americans and police? In the vernacular of Black Lives Matter: “The system isn’t broken. It was designed like that.”

Law enforcement isn’t apart from the system. It’s a part of it. Cincinnati’s distribution of 37% of its annual municipal budget to policing reflects our civic priority and makes it among the highest of major US cities in both percentage and per capita spending.

Yet, as the insurrection of Jan. 6 again shows, on a national scale, police, like the military, face the ongoing challenge of white supremacists in their ranks. Slave patrols are a root of contemporary American law enforcement. Cincinnati’s Sentinel Police Association, an advocacy and watchdog organization made up almost exclusively of Black officers, would not have existed since 1968 if African American and other people of color did not experience racism within the department.

Police are not alone. Like all other major social structures, they are sources of institutional racism – defined as the collective social, economic, educational, and political forces or policies that operate to foster discriminatory outcomes or give preferences to members of one group over others. These institutions, created and maintained largely by white men, ensure that the human rights and human needs of one group are maintained, often at the expense of others.

Whether police killings and other misconduct take place today in Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta or rural Georgia, the brutality feels local because of social media and cell phone video. Cincinnati, like much of the rest of the world, reacted in prolonged, large-scale protest after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. The racial reckoning, pandemic, and economic collapse of the past 13 months served as an X-ray, revealing fractures and the overall fragile skeleton of the society we’ve built.

US society isn’t broken. It is operating as structured by the richest and most powerful. Yet that fact is the good news. Institutional racism and poverty are social constructs, meaning they were built and are maintained by human beings. They can be reconstructed. The process is arduous, however, and meets with backlash and widespread resistance from many whites and the wealthy.

As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here?” in 1968, the greatest adversary of the African American was not the Ku Klux Klan or John Birch Society. The white liberal is “the leading voice in the chorus for social transition.” Yet, King continued, “The white liberal … is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, [preferring] tranquility to equality.”

Mark Curnutte, a former Enquirer reporter, is author of two books, including “Across the Color Line: Reporting 25 Years in Black Cincinnati,” (2019). He is a visiting instructor of social justice and journalism at Miami University, Oxford. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Read or Share this story: https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2021/04/07/mark-curnutte-former-journalist-says-poverty-no-accident/7088862002/

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