COLUMN: What do the Tensing trial outcome and child poverty have in common?

'It's heart-breaking'

CINCINNATI -- At the same time Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced his decision Tuesday not to seek another trial for former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing, scores of people were huddling less than five miles away to try to come up with new ways to reduce the county’s shameful child poverty rate.

If you’re wondering what one has to do with the other, Donna Jones Baker has a simple answer for you: racial disparities.

Donna Jones Baker

“I don’t believe and the Urban League does not believe that individuals are necessarily racist,” said Jones Baker, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio. “But we have rules and regulations and procedures that absolutely are.”

Those rules, regulations and procedures work against black people in the criminal justice system, she said, and they work against black people struggling financially to support their families.

I talked to Jones Baker minutes after Deters announced his decision and just as her organization and others were releasing a statement that began with the words: “The pursuit of justice was abandoned today.”

RELATED: Deters won’t re-try Tensing but DOJ might

“If we can’t get a conviction with someone who’s wearing a confederate flag T-shirt under a uniform and a body cam showing what happened and exactly how it happened, we just can’t get one,” Jones Baker told me. “Tensing murdered Sam DuBose. Was it training? Was it fear?”

She said the use of voter rolls to select jurors is part of the problem with the criminal justice system. Other jurisdictions have used utility bills or driver’s licenses, she said, which would result in a jury pool with a fairer racial balance.

“By us doing it the way that we do, we will always have what we’ve got,” she said.

The same is true when it comes to reducing poverty, she told me.

Deters: ‘It’s heart-breaking’

The over-representation of black men in prisons across the country has devastated black communities, she said.

“When you devastate black communities, you have families that can’t take care of themselves,” she said. “When these guys get out of prison, they make less or can’t even get a job.”

Then there are the state and federal policies that strip families of government supports as soon as they start to do a bit better for themselves.

Or the studies that show that human resources departments can look at two resumes that are exactly the same and tend to pick the one with a less ethnic-sounding name -- such as picking Mary over Sheniqua.

“That is racially based,” Jones Baker said.

“The Tensing case and the issue of poverty are intertwined because of racism, in my opinion.”

Deters, a white Republican who isn’t exactly known as a bleeding-heart liberal, acknowledged the issue of race during his news conference Tuesday when asked about the role it played in the Tensing case.

“I think it’s true that there are two visions of what’s going on in the country,” he said. “It’s not just Hamilton County. It’s the country. I mean, it’s heart-breaking.”

Joe Deters

It’s more than that for Donna Jones Baker, who also is one of the co-chairs of the Child Poverty Collaborative formed in late 2015 with a goal of moving 10,000 children and 5,000 families out of poverty in five years.

“I am disappointed in an America, in a Cincinnati, that can’t do better. Won’t do better,” she told me. “Because we’ve got everything that we need to do better.”

Can we be less fearful?

So what will it take?

If you, like Jones Baker, believe that these issues are related, that racial disparity is the link that connects the two Tensing mistrials and the fact that thousands of our region’s black families are barely getting by, then you need to talk about it, she said.

She’s hopeful that the One to One Learning Collaborative that launched Tuesday could be the start of something big.

The idea behind it is for community agencies to work together to support families as they work to lift themselves out of poverty.

The goal is for the agencies to work with 500 families during this first year of the initiative and for all of them to collect information to see what works and what doesn’t before they expand the effort.

Jones Baker hopes that the Greater Cincinnati Urban League will be one of the organizations chosen to be part of the effort.

But she and the other co-chairs of the collaborative know that One to One on its own won’t be enough. There must also be work to change government and business policies that contribute to the problem of poverty. Tom Williams, the CEO of North American Properties and another co-chair of the collaborative, assured those working at Tuesday’s meetings that local businesses are committed to doing just that.

“Understand that your work here is buffeted and supported by work on policies and in the private sector,” he said.

Perhaps just as importantly, though, we in Greater Cincinnati need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about race and racism and racial disparities, Jones Baker said.

“As a community, if we see something that we know is wrong or that we feel is wrong, we’ve got to state that,” she told me. “We’ve got to be a little less fearful of upsetting our neighbors. And you never know, they might be thinking the same way we are.”

Goals for One to One were posted on the wall during the launch.

More information about the Child Poverty Collaborative is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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