Black in Fresno: A ‘silent crisis’ that’s getting worse

Black Lives Matter march draws 70 in west Fresno Saturday

A Black Lives Matter Freedom and Justice March and rally was Saturday, beginning and ending at New Light For New Life Church Of God in west Fresno.
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A Black Lives Matter Freedom and Justice March and rally was Saturday, beginning and ending at New Light For New Life Church Of God in west Fresno.

For generations, JePahl White’s family has been talking about Fresno’s inequities for its black residents. He describes it as a “silent crisis.”

“One of my father’s admonishments was to leave Fresno and plant roots somewhere else because of the lack of opportunities for black people in the city of Fresno,” he said.

Growing up in southwest Fresno during the 1980s, White remembers a large number of black professionals who lived there. Since then, they’ve moved out, leaving neighborhoods a shell of what they used to be. As they left, their positions in city and county government and other professions weren’t filled with other black professionals.

So, White wasn’t surprised by a report published earlier this month that ranked Fresno as the nation’s 10th-worst city for black Americans.

The 24/7 Wall St report titled “The Worst Cities for Black Americans” ranked cities based on numbers for black population, median income, unemployment and home ownership compared to whites, among other factors.

In a city of more than 520,000, about eight percent of the population is black, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

The report paints a bleak picture for black Fresnans, noting that about one in five are unemployed. Whites, meanwhile, fare much better on the job front, with fewer than one in 10 unemployed.

White, like other residents, doesn’t believe the numbers do justice to how bad the situation really is.

“Things are getting worse,” White said, noting that the infant mortality rate for blacks in Fresno has increased, reaching the same rates as developing countries.

“It’s a tragedy. There’s a crisis going on in the black community, and nobody’s sounding the alarm. Those who are sounding the alarm, their voices are being muted, not just by one person but by the system that’s set up in Fresno.”

More specifically, the report noted that more than 40 percent of Fresno’s black residents live in poverty, over three times the number of white residents living in poverty.

The report attributed the disparity to housing segregation, a problem that plagued other cities across the country. Plus, it noted that while socioeconomic disparities are divided along racial lines, so are health inequities.

“Many of the city’s black and minority residents live in west Fresno, while the wealthier, largely white population lives in northern and eastern sections of the metro area,” the report said. “The construction of Highway 99 through Central Valley in the 1950s created a physical barrier between east and west Fresno, further concentrating poverty in minority neighborhoods.”

The report also referenced Fresno’s disparity in life expectancy based on neighborhood, which differs by as much as 20 years when you compare northwest and southwest Fresno.

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The unemployment rate for black Fresnans is about 22 percent, while it’s under 9 percent for whites. About a quarter of Fresno’s black residents are homeowners, compared to 66 percent of the white population.

Tate Hill, the former CEO for Fresno’s Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, said the same data in the 24/7 Wall St report has been around for years, but institutions only recently began addressing the issues. As the Valley has emerged on the state’s radar in terms of growth, more of its challenges have been exposed.

One of those challenges is getting the government to establish policies to invest in minority businesses, he said.

“The city of Fresno has done a very poor job utilizing local minority businesses in contracting,” he said. “Small businesses and minority businesses spend a higher percentage of revenues on personnel than larger companies. That money all circulates back into the economy. And, they’re more likely to hire other people of color.”

Early in 2018, the California Strategic Growth Council awarded Fresno a $70 million grant through the Transformative Climate Communities program for disadvantaged communities. The money will be used for projects in downtown, Chinatown and southwest Fresno, historically where Fresno’s black population lived.

Hill now works for Access Plus Capital, a nonprofit that has lent millions to small businesses throughout the Central Valley. The company helps minority-owned small businesses access capital, something that’s more of an urban strategy.

“It is that challenge of a rural identity because ag is still a prominent component here,” he said. “But Fresno very much so is an urban city.”

Even though his favorite hashtag on Twitter is #FresnoIsBroken, White remains optimistic. He hopes a burgeoning tech industry downtown and the decriminalization of cannabis can uplift the black community.

Both White and Hill agree the changes must start with policy — on land use, zoning and minority contract work.

“It’s going to be a great effort between the public sector, private sector, communities and faith-based organizations,” he said. “Through education, tech and entrepreneurship, there’s an opportunity for west Fresno to pull itself out of a hole that’s been there for decades.”

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix