Editorials

Fresno’s black community lives in a crisis. Will city leaders finally work to end it?

JePahl White stands on the property where his father’s west Fresno home once stood, with the long-shut down well in background and an old vineyard. By the age of 42, White had endured two kidney transplants, surgery for a cancerous tumor and open-heart surgery. He blames the dirty air and contaminated water found in west Fresno, which is where many of the city’s African Americans live.
JePahl White stands on the property where his father’s west Fresno home once stood, with the long-shut down well in background and an old vineyard. By the age of 42, White had endured two kidney transplants, surgery for a cancerous tumor and open-heart surgery. He blames the dirty air and contaminated water found in west Fresno, which is where many of the city’s African Americans live. jwalker@fresnobee.com

The finding was sobering: Fresno was called one of the worst cities in America for black people to live in, according to an analysis done by 24/7 Wall St., a financial news and opinion website.

In key metrics like employment, income and home ownership, African Americans living in Fresno fare much worse than their peers nationwide. Fresno was ranked the 10th worst city for blacks in 24/7 Wall St.’s list of Top 15 worst cities in the nation. And Fresno was the only city on the West Coast to make the list.

Blacks make up about 8 percent of Fresno’s population. The median income of Fresno’s African Americans is 42 percent of white Fresnans, at $25,895. 24/7 Wall St. found that 41 percent of African Americans in Fresno live in poverty, “one of the largest shares of any city and more than three times the 13 percent white poverty rate,” said the report, which was published in early November.

Unemployment for blacks in the city stands at 22.3 percent, way above the 9 percent rate of whites. And while two-thirds of white Fresnans own their homes, only 25 percent of blacks do.

One southwest Fresno resident quoted by Bee staff writer Brianna Calix called the plight of Fresno’s black community a “silent crisis.” JePahl White said the difficulties and challenges were well known in the African American community, but were not as understood outside it.

The 24/7 Wall St. study was the latest look at a problem that has actually existed for decades. A city-county report done in 1964 determined west Fresno “has the lowest educational attainment, highest proportion of unskilled and unemployed persons, the lowest income, the lowest home value and the highest proportion of unsound housing.”

But the 24/7 Wall St. report places Fresno in a national context, and serves to issue a new call to all Fresnans: Is it acceptable for our black neighbors to struggle so?

The new year offers a fresh opportunity: Political, business, educational and religious leaders should come together in a summit to brainstorm how to address the plight of Fresno’s black community. The goal is simple: help our neighbors improve their lives. The ways to do that are as limitless as our imagination.

Here are a few ideas that could start the conversation:

Diversity in government: The city, through its advisory commissions, can better bring African American perspectives to bear on decision making through appointments. One person who should be approached is Tate Hill, who ran a strong City Council campaign before finishing second in the race for District 3 seat. He is a lifelong west Fresno resident who has financial expertise on getting capital to small businesses.

The opportunity for including diverse perspectives on key boards and committees is also true for Fresno Unified.

Additionally, as much as is legally allowable, the city and school district should seek local black employees for openings in their ranks, and work to award contracts for services to businesses owned by local African Americans. Mayor Lee Brand says his administration is diligent about trying to line up contracts with minority businesses.

Business backing: When it comes to supporting local businesses owned by African Americans, a critical need they have is access to capital. Such an infusion can help a business grow and expand, which then feeds employment opportunities. Are local lending institutions doing all they can to make this happen? And to what extent do banks and credit unions in Fresno have African Americans on their staffs?

Educational achievement: Fresno Unified trustees know they have an achievement gap problem — black students consistently perform much worse than other pupil groups. A special remedial reading program held last summer specifically for African American students and their parents was deemed a success because reading scores improved and, most importantly, parent participation was high. What other creative ideas can be hatched to keep the focus on improving the academic achievement of Fresno’s black high schoolers?

Bridging the divide: Several churches in predominately white northeast Fresno have established relationships with schools, neighborhoods and African American congregations in west Fresno. The financial resources of those northeast churches to help others are significant; even more so is the in-house expertise of their members for such things as home improvement to tutoring young people to giving advice on finding jobs. Getting to know neighbors across town can seem scary, but these churches have broken through that social barrier and have found that helping out is a key to community.

No meaningful improvement in the lives of black Fresnans will occur until the neighborhoods they live in are revitalized. The 24/7 Wall St. report notes how construction of Highway 99 in the 1950s created a physical barrier that segregated west Fresno. Today the area is full of abandoned and rundown homes. The city’s code enforcement effort is an important aspect of revitalization; landlords who do not keep up their rentals need to be held accountable.

Revitalized neighborhoods entice investor interest. So do projects like the proposed Fresno City College satellite campus that is to be built at the southwest corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Church Avenue. Students attending there would get technical training that would help them enter good-paying careers. The hope is entrepreneurs would be inspired to invest in southwest Fresno as well.

Brand promises to follow through on the city General Plan’s goal of filling in empty lots with new housing and commercial projects, rather than letting sprawl occur. This, too, would help west Fresno.

Having a summit would be simply a first step. Concrete action and results are what count. Keshia Thomas, an Edison High graduate and career educator who was just elected to the Fresno Unified school board to represent west Fresno, notes how her children, now adults in good careers, did not want to return to where they grew up.

“I get so tired of talking about what we are going to do,” she says. “We need solutions and action.”

Can we continue to let the African American segment of our city remain in crisis? That is a question not just for Fresno’s leaders, but also citizens blessed with good health, homes and finances. If we ignore the plight of our black neighbors , we accept a weakened Fresno. We should be better than that. Working together, we can be.

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