Cleveland's racial divide now has a generational divide

George Forbes, a cook of some measure, comes in three flavors: sweet, sour and saucy, the latter so biting it can gag. Sauce was boss these recent days as Forbes managed to offend most sensible souls in town when he allowed The Call & Post to attack state senator Nina Turner with an Aunt Jemima caricature and a berating editorial.

All Turner did to deserve this treatment was be the only elected black official to support Issue 6, the reorganization of county government. Think about it — a vote against 6 would have been an endorsement of corruption, incompetence and hopelessness. What is morally complicated about that choice?

Forbes is the legal advisor for the black newspaper. The last time he offended such a large audience was in the 1970s when he had a radio show on WERE and insisted white people turn off their radios. Then he wondered in 1989 why he was not elected mayor.

There is not enough time or space to record the life and times of George Forbes, let alone do an analysis of him that would explain his outrage. He is a complex man of many parts — hubris among them, as well as theater — and a profoundly visceral nature. I have known him for nearly 40 years, some as a friend and a good many as an adversary. He once introduced me to the president of American Express as a man who has been trying to put him in jail for 30 years. I liked that.

Then there was the time Forbes called John Lanigan's radio show while Lanigan and I were discussing the usual follies at city hall and threatened to come to the studio and kick my ass. I left before he could get there.

Clearly, George Forbes is about race, not surprising given that he grew up in a segregated South, endured the civil-rights turmoil during the 1960s and served longer as city council president than any person in the town's history. He played a key role in rejuvenating the city in the 1980s.

At 78, a man of some accomplish-ment, Forbes insists on playing out his life as a dominant figure in the black community. It could be that this is the last hurrah not only for him but an era as well. The passage of Issue 6, which was supported by Turner and some blacks from a younger generation, may be a signal that politics as Forbes, Lou Stokes and Arnold Pinckney have known since the 1960s is over.

To me, there is sadness to the Turner incident. Cleveland politics and government have been going from bad to worse for almost two decades now. The inertia here is so stifling that it almost sucks one's breath away. You do not have to be an urban expert to look at the region and see that we are losing jobs, population, confidence and, equally important, our youth. Time is running out, folks, but those who lead insist on marginalizing us into contentious camps and communities incapable of creating a dynamic whole

The city is calcified in a kind of racial mentality that prohibits the two communities from successfully uniting in a common cause called Cleveland. It is a sinking ship, but the town's leadership will not acknowledge that we are all going down, regardless of the community in which we claim citizenship.

For those of us who covered the bloodshed of the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, this racism seems even worse today because no one speaks out on the sad realities. It is a silent and sullen specter of impending doom that hangs over the city. In its own way, it is like the Israeli-Palestinian dispute without the violence. Both sides have their points but no common ground to resolve differences. It is also similar because politics can be employed to perpetuate the agony.

Several years ago, when the Cleveland Bar Association resurrected the idea of a regional government, there was little effort on the part of black political leadership to engage. It was clear among those on the bar association committee that unless minorities bought into the idea, any chance of government reform was lost. The effort dissipated like so many similar attempts in the past decades. The shortsightedness of political gridlock paralyzed and bankrupted the community.

This was followed by the establishment of a commission by the governor to study government reform. Former Congressman Lou Stokes unilaterally declared for the black community there was no real need for reform.

Finally, earlier this year, another group sponsored what would become Issue 6, without the support of the established black political leadership. Traditional race-card politics, along with an effort by the Democratic Party to subvert the measure, were unsuccessful.

In all these cases, the established black leadership, with campaign ribbons reaching back to a time when Cleveland streets were mean with racial violence, did not see the need to seize the moment in a changing world and add to their legacy the wisdom and vision that would bond a divided city. Truth is they hung back as if they were masters of the universe, a universe that had passed them by.

A few days before The Call & Post published its editorial and demeaning cartoon, The Plain Dealer published a page-one profile of Nina Turner. No doubt, this laudatory piece provoked the Call & Post's response, which Forbes sanctioned. The attacks on Nina Turner were unwarranted. Her presence as a supporter of Issue 6 hardly swayed the vote, but her rise to prominence clearly unleashed jealousy among some black leaders.

If the situation warranted humor, you could call this Grumpy Old Men III.

The attack on Turner was an embarrassment to all. One executive interviewing a job candidate from Chicago when the story broke was asked what kind of city would engage in this kind of racial vendetta.

If there was anything good to come from the entire matter, it was the almost universal rebuke of the incident in one of those rare instances when the town responded as a city and not a village. The other result is that Turner has become a celebrity thanks to The Call & Post. For her, it turned out to be a public-relations coup of the first order. Why would she want an apology from the newspaper now?

Issue 6 passed because voters finally grew sick of corruption, a political party that trafficked in greed and patronage, incompetence that roamed the chambers of government like mice on the loose, and leadership so inept that a city and county stagger like a drunk in the night.

The real value of The Call & Post is a reminder that we really are a hurting place.


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