Welcome to the 1950s

Parma stays true to its all-white ways.

Mike Farley CD release party The Grog Shop Friday, October 4
The world has changed, but Parma's still the same old - sandwich.
The world has changed, but Parma's still the same old sandwich.
Last summer, Parma safety director Bob Dybzinski may have set a local record for onerous doublespeak by trying to pass off a Ukrainian American cop as a minority hire.

The city had just received a ton of bad press for hiring a white-as-Wonder Bread police candidate over a black recruit with a better score. Desperate to prove that he was really a multicultural kinda guy, Dybzinski made the poor, unmistakably Caucasian patrolman parade around for the TV news.

When that spectacle didn't wash with anybody living in this century, Parma officials further explained that the real reason the black candidate wasn't hired was because he's deaf in one ear. It was a disability, they said, that might interfere with his job performance.

So maybe Parma's leaders weren't dissing the guy just because he's African American. If that ear problem checks out with both an MD and the EEOC, mea culpas all around. But all the hair-splitting in the world won't change a bigger issue the incident brought to light: Parma is still widely perceived as the racists' paradise it was 30 years ago -- because it hasn't given anybody much reason to perceive otherwise.

Since the 1970s, when the U.S. Department of Justice successfully sued Parma for violation of fair-housing laws, the city's administration has had every chance to retool its reputation as the suburb Archie Bunker would've moved to, if he'd had the cash. High-court judges have held Parma's hand, trying to get it out of the dark ages in race relations, and the federal government has shelled out thousands of dollars in precious block-grant funds to attract more blacks there.

But such investments have had little effect. The black percentage of the city's population has risen from practically no one (.04 percent) in 1970 to hardly anyone (1.3 percent) in 2000.

In 1989, Parma had only one black employee out of 550 people on the city payroll. In the years since, with the help of another court order, the city has doubled its black workforce to a grand total of two. Some continents drift faster than that.

Cleveland has plenty of other predominantly white suburbs, but they don't have Parma's bad rap. That's because, unlike Parma, they don't actively discourage minorities from living within their borders.

Unlike a former Parma councilman, their public officials haven't admitted under oath, "We don't want Negroes in our city." Unlike a former Parma mayor, their mayors haven't been consistently hostile to court-appointed fair-housing lawyers. And unlike the Parma administration of the 1990s, their leaders certainly haven't spent $200,000 and several years in a losing legal battle to get around hiring more blacks.

For all its efforts at resisting integration, Parma has reaped few rewards. Losing the "Whiteyville" label would only help Parma, says W. Dennis Keating, a Cleveland State University urban studies professor and author of the book The Suburban Racial Dilemma (which devotes a none-too-flattering chapter to the magical land of lawn gnomes and Burger King drive-thrus). In a time when even right-wingers are rushing to assemble their own "compassionate conservative" versions of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, an integrated city is a healthy city, attractive to homeowners and employers alike.

"Whether it's Parma, Greater Cleveland, or Westlake, the ideal today is a multicultural, global world," says Keating. "The more racially diverse places in the country -- California, Texas -- those are the places that are thriving economically."

As early as the 1960s, some Cleveland suburbs foresaw the benefits of integration and took proactive steps to attract blacks to their cities and keep whites from fleeing. To discourage blockbusting, for example, neighborhood groups in Shaker Heights secured incentives for whites to move to certain "threatened" areas of town. They spearheaded a citywide ban on "For Sale" signs and sought out black realtors to list and show homes throughout the city. Decades later, Shaker still has its share of problems, but they're problems that come from living in the modern world, not a 1950s hygiene film.

In Parma, however, being proactive means hanging plastic Easter eggs from the trees right after Valentine's Day. A grassroots meeting on "diversifying our neighborhoods" might attract the masses, if it comes with a coupon for a 99-cent breakfast at Denny's. And even then, it wouldn't have much impact if the moderator were a concerned outsider, like a civil rights attorney or a Joe Birkenstock with a B.A. in Eastern philosophy from Antioch College.

Only a priest or pastor or the couple that leads the Marriage Encounter group could really create some buzz. This is, after all, a city with a bar on every corner, and a church for every bar. Though Parma lacks a Unitarian congregation or a synagogue, forward-thinking Jesuit priests have a retreat right on State Road. St. Charles and Holy Family are huge Catholic parishes, and the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches aren't far behind.

So far, though, any Parma clerics who might be bona fide progressives are keeping a low profile. "I'm not aware of any churches that have come forward to say, 'We want Parma to be diverse," says Keating. "Or 'We want our city council to adopt programs like other cities'.' And I don't know why that hasn't happened."

The idea of churches initiating major social change is not new. During the Civil Rights era, for example, "regular" white folks didn't lift their heads out of their mashed potatoes until their preachers' Sunday sermons got them riled up about the evils of segregation.

Perhaps Parma's pastors could kick off a new integration campaign with a sermon explaining that a Ukrainian doesn't count as a "minority hire." And no matter how much your grandparents were persecuted in the Old Country, in this country, you're a white person first. That no matter what Slavic state you descend from, you can travel from your house to Tops without being pulled over by a cop for Driving While Black.

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