Watch Our New Jury Honor Our Class of 2024 In This Announcement Video


An introspective, respectful and sold-out City Club audience gathered to consider the long march to equality for transgender people in Northeast Ohio. Activist Stacey Parsons spoke directly to the elected officials in the room: “Without your support, nothing can change. Your being here says so much to the community.”

Darius Stubbs, a Cleveland teaching artist, added that “public policy helps change the city and if changes are made there, then people have to evaluate where they stand personally.”

The session opened with Dr. Kevin Ng, who directs the MetroHealth’s PRIDE Clinic, where he estimates two-thirds of his patients are transgender. He began with a quick lesson: Biological sex is the sex assigned at birth, whereas gender identity is how people see themselves when they close their eyes. On the flip side, gender expression is how people choose to present themselves the outside world. A person is transgender when their biological sex and gender identity don’t coincide.

Parsons was congenial and straightforward: “Ask questions if you have a question. Kids learn from how you treat us.”

Whatever the stogy Midwest stereotype, Cleveland is a leader in anti-discrimination measures for the LGBT community, said Susan J. Becker, a Cleveland State University law professor. But there is still room for growth. She mentioned the proposed city ordinance that would require public spaces such bathrooms and locker rooms to be available on a nondiscriminatory basis. This law would allow transgender individuals to use the restroom they feel most comfortable in.

Actually passing such measures requires much community education, Ng said, noting that it could begin in hospitals and clinics. Most medical schools offer only five hours of instruction regarding LGBT care, he said. “And the ‘T’ is usually the smallest part.”

Patients who are transgender often meet hostility instead of “care.” Parsons said, “Physicians have told me they don’t want to deal with me and will treat me like a man” as the room went silent. “If that’s not the most dehumanizing thing…” And Stubbs said his doctor sent a letter suggesting he seek a different care provider. Becker said there is little legal recourse: in only one third of states is discrimination against transgender people illegal.

Moderator Connie Schultz asked how journalists can produce more accurate reporting of transgender issues.

“It’s horrifying when [journalists] misgender someone,” Parsons responded. “They’ll write, ‘an oddly dressed man, wearing women’s clothing.’ That’s obviously a transgender individual. It’s a blatant disrespect to the individual. All it does is bring negative attention to the transgender community.”

When Stubbs was asked if he faced any particular challenges transitioning as a person of color, his response was sobering.

“I’ve become very aware of how differently black men are treated in society,” he said carefully. “I’m very aware of the palpable fear that comes from people, when they are trying to engage a man of color. There’s an immediate feeling of ‘you are a predator’ that comes off when you talk to people. It’s something I’m still having to deal with.”

In a popular U.S. high school history textbook, The Americans, there is only one sentence—in passive voice—on housing discrimination among more than 1200 pages of text: “African-Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.”

So noted researcher Richard Rothstein, who cited this fact as an exemplar of American “collective amnesia” when it comes to how we discuss segregation. Such disingenuousness, he told the City Club of Cleveland, keeps our nation from righting past wrongs.

In October, the Economic Policy Institute published Rothstein’s latest scholarship: “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policy at Root of its Troubles.” This work, praised for its incisive analysis by Ta-Nehisi Coates, synthesized the cumulative effects of decades of discriminatory policies on black citizens in the St. Louis, Missouri region.

With minimal use of his notes, Rothstein drew a precise and powerful link between the current achievement gap among the races and our country’s legacy of inequality. “We do not have de facto segregation in this country,” he maintained, to murmurs of agreement in the audience. “We have explicit racial apartheid and we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”

Rothstein devoted the bulk of his City Club presentation to revisiting this history, beginning with the public policies in the 1940s that restricted black families to crowded public housing units and prevented black veterans from taking full advantage of the housing benefits in the G.I. Bill after World War II. Those national policy decisions stripped black families of the opportunity to generate the generational wealth enjoyed by whites.

Levittown, a Long Island, N.Y. suburb that boomed in the 1940s, makes a poignant example. Rothstein estimates that white homeowners who purchased their residences in the 1950s saw a 200% increase in equity in the following decades, which often sent children to college or enhanced businesses.

Simply outlawing discrimination doesn’t remedy years of injury, Rothstein argued, particularly as the effect of housing inequity still plagues American schools today: “We have a constitutional obligation to undo this history. It was not an accident. It was created under public policy. We have an obligation to reverse it.”

Rothstein also recommends reforms in the labor market, including the end of unpredictable scheduling for many low-wage occupations, overwhelmingly held by parents of color. Fifty percent of all black hourly workers receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance, he noted, making it difficult to find consistent childcare or set mealtimes. “Giving parents stable work lives would do more to close the achievement gap than any education reform we can talk about.”

Questions from the audience were measured, including two from local high school students. Anthony Price from Shaw High School asked if Rothstein had suggestions for young people in eradicating inequality, in light of a recent City Club forum that placed youth at the center of the conversation, which he moderated. Rothstein circled back to his textbook example. “Educate yourselves about this history and insist that it become part of the curriculum,” he said to applause.

Will Congress or the Supreme Court address modern segregation? Rothstein insisted on the long view: “It’s going to take a long process of reeducating the American public. The Supreme Court is not going to go where we fear to go.”

When Atlantic Monthly correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ spoke in Cleveland in August about reparations, he touched only briefly on the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., earlier that month.

“All I want to see is some history of the housing there,” he said. “We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”

Researcher Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute has dug up some of the answers in his new report, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policy at the Root of its Troubles.” On Twitter, Coates called it the “best researched piece I’ve seen to come out of all this.”

Policies on zoning, segregated public housing, bank redlining and federal subsidies diverted from black communities all did cumulative harm, Rothstein argues.

“Government policies turned black neighborhoods into overcrowded slums and white families came to associate African Americans with slum characteristics,” Rothstein writes. “White homeowners then fled when African Americans moved nearby, fearing their new neighbors would bring slum conditions with them.”

In his own column covering Rothstein’s report, Coates reiterates: “The geography of America would be unrecognizable today without the racist social engineering of the mid-20th century.”

Rothstein calls for a more systemic lens to address decades of discrimination: “When we blame private prejudice, suburban snobbishness, and black poverty for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash our own history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”

The full report is available on the Institute’s website. Rothstein will speak at the City Club of Cleveland on February 13, 2015. Tickets will be available at a later date.

Where we live is bedrock to our identities.

For half of the 20th century, racial covenants embedded in the property deeds of homes in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and nearby Forest Hills “deferred but did not defeat the suburban dreams of Jews and African Americans,” reports historian Marian Morton.

An emeritus professor of John Carroll University, Morton gave a lively, standing-room-only talk at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, Ohio. She showed a 1930 advertisement for new homes in Forest Hills, a neighborhood straddling Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, which promised “surroundings . . . where your neighbors are inevitably people of tastes in common with yours . . . The careful restrictions placed on Forest Hills today will not be lowered.”

Racial covenants rested on the assumption that undesirable racial groups lowered property values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional for cities in 1917, but in 1926 declared that private individuals or corporations could engage in them.

“I hate the 1920s,” Morton told her audience. “The only thing good that happened was women got the right to vote in 1920. The bad?  A resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, federal immigration restrictions, and restrictive covenants targeting ‘unwanted races and Hebrews.’”

Shaker Heights began as a planned community, developed by Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen, who bought 1,200 acres in 1906 from the religious Shakers. The brothers oversaw early property deeds that allowed growing flowers, but not vegetables, and prohibited “barns, stables, or water closets.” Their new village thrived; its population soared from 200 in 1910 to 1,600 in 1920.

Early in 1925, the Van Sweringens began to add restrictions on resale of Shaker Heights homes. Two ugly racial incidents marred that year: the bombing of a black doctor’s home in University Circle and an attack on the Huntington Road residence of a second physician, Dr. Edward A. Bailey, by angry whites.

Virginia Dawson, a Shaker Heights historian, spoke up during Morton’s presentation to add details. She said that when Bailey’s chauffer tried to clear the crowd by firing shots in the air, the Shaker Heights police surrounded the house and set up a search of everyone going inside and out.  The Bailey family sued the city for harassment in 1925, and lost. They moved away.

Even as restrictive covenants proliferated, Morton noted, they were worded cagily to avoid naming who was excluded. The homeowner was required to obtain the development owner’s permission on any sale or lease, or get the nod of surrounding neighbors to transfer the property.

“In 1948 the Supreme Court had ruled that restrictive covenants could not be legally enforced,” Morton writes in an elaboration of her talk for the Teaching Cleveland web site. “The court decision did not preclude informal or extra-legal means of enforcing covenants, however, and the vagueness of the Shaker Heights and Forest Hills covenants meant that any group considered undesirable could still be excluded.”

By mid-century, African Americans, “like other Americans in the prosperous postwar period . . . dreamed of green lawns, fine homes, and social acceptance,” she writes, adding that “World War II brought a big shift in racial and religious tolerance.”

Still, Jews and blacks faced restrictive covenants, and blacks occasionally met outright violence. When the Shaker Heights home of the prominent attorney John Peggs was bombed in 1954, some community groups were galvanized to fight blockbusting and white flight. Still, in 1970, Cleveland Heights was only two percent black. “I’m ashamed to admit that blacks were most unwelcome in Cleveland Heights,” said Morton, who has lived in the Heights for 48 years.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Fair Housing Act of 1968 was a breakthrough, and both Shaker and Cleveland Heights passed fair housing legislation.

And, with each passing decade, Morton observed, restrictive covenants became harder to enforce. They didn’t cover all properties, and the region grew more tolerant. Jews had been prominent merchants on Coventry Road since the 1920s. Members of Morton’s audience stood up to recall personal incidents of being rejected as home buyers. One man asserted that in 1937, “no blacks, no Jews, no Catholics, no Italians, and no bartenders” were allowed in Forest Hills. Another recounted his family being made uncomfortable for being Jewish. Morton noted that the Van Sweringens made it difficult for a Catholic Church to break ground in Shaker Heights; St. Dominic had a difficult time establishing itself.

“Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights today pride themselves on their racial, religious and economic diversity, a diversity that their founders never imagined,” Morton writes. “Suburbia is still about dreams – same dreams, different dreamers.”

Mark Davidson, manager of school and family programs at the Maltz Museum, saw encouraging signs. “We want to be part of the new Cleveland that is being born – friendlier, let’s say, and more willing to visit each other’s turf.”