LIMA — Life in Lima can be a battle of perceptions for African-Americans in the city.
No matter their personal ethics or efforts, they often feel stuck in a city that doesn’t necessarily offer equal opportunity for all its residents.
“As an African-American male, there’s already one strike against us,” said Jamie Dixon, a 27-year-old service coordinator for National Church Residences, an organization that helps provide affordable senior housing. “If you grew up on the other side of the tracks, that’s another strike. I have to dig myself out of a hole that I didn’t even create. I have to prove myself that I’m reliable and quick to do the job and that I have morals and respect.”
For Sharetta Smith, a Perry High School and Ohio Northern graduate who now works as a magistrate in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and edits the Urban Voice newspaper in Lima and Chattanooga, those perceptions weigh down people’s ambitions. People begin to live down to those expectations, she said.
“You have to do deal with people based on how they perceive things,” she said. “If you have a group of people that feel like they don’t have opportunities, they will live like they have no opportunities. You live out your perceptions.”
Those perceptions have been on display since late last year, when online publication 24/7 Wall St. released a list of the 10 worst cities for black Americans. It ranked Lima as the seventh-worst city in the entire nation, based on eight measures, with all of the top 10 being other Midwestern cities.
The Lima News begins an eight-day series today, looking at the conditions in Lima and seeing where statistics and residents’ stories overlapped.
Reviewing the stats
The numbers in the 24/7 Wall St. report can be misleading from the beginning, based on its very definition of what is “Lima.” The study used the Lima metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the U.S. Census. That means its numbers, based heavily on the 2014 American Community Survey from the Census, included all of Allen County, not just the city limits of Lima.
That distinction includes a number of villages and townships where fewer minorities live. The report labeled Lima as having 12.2 percent black population, when that’s Allen County’s percentage. In the city of Lima itself, 26.4 percent of residents were black, according to 2014 U.S. Census.
The most jarring statistic from 24/7 Wall St. was on the black median household income as a percentage of white income. The report said the typical black household in Lima made just 36.5 percent of what a typical white household earned annually, the biggest difference anywhere in the country. It placed the median annual income for whites at $49,125, more than $31,000 greater than the black median income of $17,908.
Those numbers don’t jive with the 2014 American Community Survey for Lima, though. That showed the median household income for a white family in Lima was $19,586, while the black average was 21.3 percent of that at $15,409.
On the other hand, the 24/7 Wall St. report underreported the unemployment rate difference between the demographics, saying 22.9 percent of blacks were unemployed. In 2014 in Lima, about 16 percent of whites were without jobs, compared to 28 percent of blacks, according to 2014 U.S. Census figures.
“Even if the whole study could be unfounded, the reality is that the perception is there that blacks don’t have the opportunities,” said the Rev. Lamont Monford, pastor at Philippian Missionary Baptist Church. “I think Lima is very unique, and we have to think outside of the box.”
Lima Mayor David Berger declined to be interviewed for this series.
There are concerns that black employees don’t get the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Bryan Risner, who previously worked at a Lima location of a cell phone company, said he hit a glass ceiling after a few promotions.
“I was never going to go somewhere,” said Risner, now 39. “If you’re not the right color … you were frozen where you were at.”
Joe Patton, the administrator at the OhioMeansJobs center in Allen County, said communication is a bigger barrier than actual racism. He said it’s an issue of people not having the right skills for the right jobs. He said many employers are actively reaching out to the black community.
“We have availability to place people in all different types of jobs,” he said. “A lot of times people don’t understand what’s available.”
Lima’s black students do have trouble earning the proper education to advance their lives. But so do other students in the Lima schools’ district, where poverty is a concern, said Bryan Miller, director of the schools’ Closing the Achievement Gap program.
While Miller admits dropout rates continue to be a problem at Lima schools, he said the CTAG program has helped dozens of black, at-risk students obtain their diplomas. He said that when the program started, only 47 to 48 percent of black males were graduating. Since implementing CTAG, Miller said that number has averaged out to 78 percent in the eight years since the program took effect.
Beyond the district’s graduation rates, students don’t see themselves reflected in the educational workforce. Lima schools officials say they have trouble recruiting qualified minority teachers. Of the district’s 616 contracted staff members, an estimated 50, or 8 percent, are minorities. Only 26 are black teachers, administrators or part of the CTAG program.
“It may be discouraging to people who look at someone and can’t see themselves doing what they do because they can’t relate as much,” said Kaleb Russell, a senior at Lima Senior who had fewer than five black teachers in his 12 years in the district. “It’s very important we have a diverse group of role models to follow and people we can look up to.”
Minorities in uniform
There’s a similar disparity on Lima’s police and fire departments. The Lima Police Department has one black officer out of 84 officers on staff.
That leads to distrust of the police and courts system, said Kim Parks, a black woman and owner of a local day-care center. The city’s pinpoint policing, which tries to target high-crime areas, only adds to African-American residents’ worries.
“Nobody around here wants to apply because they don’t feel they could do their job efficiently,” Parks said. “They would feel like they have to follow in the old boy’s network and they don’t want to do that.”
It’s not for lack of trying.
The LPD created several study sessions for the Civil Service tests to become an officer but had little turnout. Now, it’s working with the Lima schools to put resource officers into schools to build a better relationship. That includes the “Red to Blue” program, trying to interest students in trading in their Spartans’ red for a policeman’s blue uniform.
For people like Smith, real opportunities could revive the American dream for the Lima’s black residents.
“We have young people who are vibrant, and they have fresh, innovative ideas,” she said. “When they start contributing to a community, it’s awesome.”
Lima News reporters John Bush, Craig Kelly, Danae King, Lance Mihm and Greg Sowinski contributed to this report. Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.
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