SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio – Now that the U.S. Census has released its decennial population count for Cuyahoga County, including data on the racial makeup of communities in suburban Cleveland, how does the 2020 census update our long-standing reputation as one of the nation’s most racially segregated metropolises? And why is this important?
In 1960, some 98% of African Americans in Cuyahoga County were confined to the city of Cleveland, mostly on the East Side. The turbulent 1960s saw organization, protests, and resistance over segregation in housing, schools, and employment, and the beginnings of African-American migration from Clevelander to the suburbs. Some were “greeted” by terrorist bombings, burning of sacrilegious crosses or other forms of harassment, while others were directed to areas already integrated by estate agents or said the the apartment they were looking for had just “been rented”.
Following the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Congress and President Lyndon Johnson approved the Federal Fair Housing Act (US Civil Rights Act of 1968). The initial implementation of the law, coinciding approximately with the 1970 census, makes this earlier count a baseline against which the effects of the Fair Housing Act itself, and related litigation and efforts companies, governments and nonprofits that it spurred on, can possibly be evaluated half a century later.
What does the new data show? (Note that the data is for those who responded “Black or African-American alone” to the census, as reported by the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, and excludes Asian, Hispanic / Latinos, other races, or multiracial in the census.)
Cuyahoga County’s overall population of 1,264,817 in 2020 is 29% African American (compare the Ohio and US populations to 12% African Americans, based on monoracial responses to the census).
· In 1970, 12% of African American residents in Cuyahoga County lived in the suburbs. Today, 51% of the county’s 370,895 African-Americans (or 190,671 people) are commuters. Factoring in the Cleveland suburbs in adjacent counties, particularly Western Lake and North Summit counties, pushes this suburb share even higher. The typical Clevelander, whether black or white, is now a commuter.
· In 1970, only three suburban cities – East Cleveland, Shaker Heights, and Warrensville Heights – had populations that were at least 5% African American. Now, every town in the eastern suburbs of Cuyahoga County, except one, has a population of at least 5% African-Americans; and in all but two, at least 10% African-Americans. Many villages in the eastern suburbs (municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants) are now just as diverse.
· Today’s African-American suburbs reside primarily in racially diverse communities – defined here as between 10% and 89% African-Americans. Only 13% live in the two eastern suburbs, which today have a population of 90% or more African-American; and 9% live in places where less than one in ten is African American, that is, where they are still very much in the minority. This is particularly the case west of the Cuyahoga River.
· This story of suburban racial diversification remains above all a story of the eastern suburbs. African-American commuters are still the majority (91%) East Siders – 173,780 people. Even so, 16,891 (9%) of all African American commuters are located and have often decided to relocate to communities in West Cuyahoga County.
While no western suburban community has a population of at least 10% African American, four cities – Brooklyn, Berea, Parma Heights, and Lakewood – have populations of at least 5% Afro. – Americans. Like these cities, Parma and Strongsville each have at least 1,000 African American residents.
Why is this important?
The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial discrimination in housing continues to cast a shadow over our country and Greater Cleveland. Even tentative signs of its lifting, in part thanks to the federal Fair Housing Act and continued efforts to enforce it, are welcome.
The census data reported here reflects the location choices, whether relatively limited or free, made by thousands of Great Clevelanders based on their means over the past decade and decades before. They can open up new opportunities for access to better quality housing, safer streets, better schools, proximity to work, convenient shopping, more responsive public services – things that are sought after by the public. Most commuters – for African Americans as well as other housing seekers, but positive such results are neither described nor guaranteed by census data.
The real stories will be told in the lived experiences of new and old residents of these communities. The future of Greater Cleveland will depend on how these shared opportunities are used.
H. Richard Obermanns is a consultant to foundations and nonprofit organizations and was research director of the Cuyahoga Plan of Ohio, a metropolitan fair housing organization.
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