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Jewish World Review August 22, 2001 / 3 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Maybe the drugstore clerk knows best -- CINCINNATI -- What a shame.

Not the city -- not Cincinnati, as this summer after the April riots limps toward Labor Day.

Cincinnati has nothing to be ashamed of -- at least not in the context of how it has tried to heal itself after the police shooting and street violence of last spring. Did it have problems between the races before the April riots? Of course -- and there are few American cities that can say they don't. Do those problems, despite the efforts of the best-intentioned men and women, black and white, in Cincinnati, continue on many levels to exist? Of course. Find me a city where relations between the races are ideal.

That's the shame of it all -- for all the good intentions and all the decades of true effort, the United States can't seem to solve this problem. Cincinnati has suffered the bad reputation this year, because Cincinnati is where the tensions boiled over in the spring of 2001. But if the rest of America chooses to delude itself into believing that Cincinnati has a problem the rest of the country doesn't, then there will eventually be a steep price for that delusion.

You hear stories in Cincinnati about how the April riots continue to be the cause of increased criminality now; police officers, not wanting to be further blamed for too-aggressive patrol tactics in African-American areas of town -- specifically the Over-the-Rhine section that was the center of the April violence -- have decided, it is said, to be not so aggressive at all. Some officers, after April, wait until they are called to a crime scene, instead of patrolling looking for crime. That is what the perception here has been. And when criminals hear that the police are sitting on the sidelines, the criminals know that their own job has been made much easier.

However the reality and perception of this -- it is called "de-policing" -- are resolved in the public mind, Cincinnati on many fronts is behaving responsibly and soberly to confront what happened here. The local news media are at the forefront -- at least it appears that way to an out-of-town reporter spending a few days here.

Every facet of race in Cincinnati is constant fodder for news and analysis -- the major media outlets seem to have decided that to shine the brightest possible light on the city's racial distrust is the best medicine. When the Over-the-Rhine festival -- an annual neighborhood celebration -- is held, it is covered as a major civic event, and emphasis is placed on how the citizens who reside there feel frustrated and victimized by how the events of April have been allowed to define who they are and where they live. When the Tender Mercies shelter for mentally ill citizens -- located in Over-the-Rhine -- begins to lose volunteers from other areas of town, because the volunteers may be newly afraid to come in, the media explain how the loss of the volunteers hurts the men and women who live in the shelter.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, as its main Page One story one Sunday this month, explored the use of the ugliest of racial epithets -- and the confusion that has grown because, while whites in Cincinnati know they should never say the word, some blacks use it openly, publicly and seemingly almost affectionately. Would this have made Page One before April? Doubtful -- and the story itself bears awkward testament to just how earnestly Cincinnati appears to be attempting to look itself in the eye.

The shame will be if Cincinnati is allowed to be an island -- if Cincinnati is assumed to be an American anomaly, an isolated case.

What are the answers? At the CVS Pharmacy on the corner of 6th and Race, I saw four boys -- friends, three black and one white -- who appeared to be 10 or 11 years old, buying candy and gum. They were buddies -- they had those miniature foot-propelled scooters that little kids like to whiz around on.

The woman who sold them the candy smiled at them as they left the store.

"Be nice to each other," she said to them.

I couldn't tell if it was something she said to all of her customers, or if she meant it in a special way for the four young friends.

But it stuck in my mind as I walked through town. Be nice to each other. What a concept.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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