Cincinnati: HIV, Racism, and the Past
By Rasha Aly
“From Slavery to Jim Crow, the Black female body has been brutally and routinely compromised in the absence of legal protection,” Norwood writes. History and statistics show she is right. The high rates of HIV contraction found within the African American, female community, illustrates this fact.
In 2015, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered White women made up 19 percent of women who were recently diagnosed with HIV and Latina women made up about 15 percent. However, that was nothing compared with the statistics of Black women. That same year, the HIV virus infected about 4,100 African American women – about 60 percent of those who were newly infected with the virus. According to these numbers, Black women are twice as likely to contract HIV. Why are African American women more vulnerable to this virus? This is just one of many questions Center Fellow Dr. Carolette Norwood answers in her research.
The University of California San Francisco, Center of AIDS Prevention Study, helped grant her wish. In 2012, the center awarded Norwood $25,000 to interview Black women who lived in high-HIV, prevalent, Cincinnati neighborhoods. In 2016, The Cincinnati Project gave her an additional $2,500. To date, Norwood, who is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, has interviewed 32 women. None of the
women she interviewed fits a specific stereotype, she said. However, the pain that resounded in each of these women’s stories shocked her. They narrated to her stories that included trauma and various forms of violence they experienced. Most of these women Black women also resided in what Norwood now calls “Jim Crow geographies” (2017). These Jim Crow neighborhoods were created deliberately out of federal and local policy that determined where Black people
live and where they could not. These communities were born out of the structural violence of Jim Crow policy.
Results showed “violence was one of the most salient features” in the lives of the women she studied, and it came in all forms, Norwood said. The women endured violence from intimate partners, acquaintances, and even relatives. Many told horrific tales of physical and sexual assault. Michelle, one of her participants, describes how she was sexually trafficked when she was only 17 years old by her 30-year-old boyfriend. He assaulted her when she would not agree to have sex with another man; her boyfriend was trying to pimp her out. As Norwood explains, “In the United States, sex trafficking is a multi-million dollar industry in which Black women and children are disproportionally over-represented.” According to Monique Morris’ Push Out, African American women represent 40 percent of commercially sexually exploited victims in the US and in Los Angels county as many as 92 percent are Black.
Another woman, revealed how an old man, who lived in the same apartment complex as her, raped her when she 16 years old. While hanging out in his cars, she says: “he grabbed me in the backseat and basically just raped me like, 'You better not scream or anything. I'm going to shoot you.' And he had a gun," she said. At the same time, because violence was frequent, it tended to be normalized. In some cases, it was expected. For instance, in conversation with Jill, the mention of rape was as common a feature as being a single mother. In explaining the hardships Black women face in her neighborhood, Jill says women can relate to each other: "like rape -- that they've been plenty of black women that probably got raped. You meet another Black woman who got raped -- y'all connect, because you know how that feels. Or being a single parent raising just a child by yourself." Norwood notes that the false equivalency of a Black woman being raped and a single parent reflects just how ubiquitous sexual violence is.
Norwood’s research also illustrated the high percentage of Black women with HIV was linked to medical racism rooted in Jim Crow with regards to housing and health disparities. African American tenants had little choice about where they could live. The effect of U.S. law, that segregated Americans by color and confined them to resource neglected neighborhoods, continues today as direct result of past policies. “In fact,” Norwood points out that “most Blacks Cincinnatian still resides in the neighborhoods Jim Crow built nearly one century ago.” Norwood explained, “This research broadly focuses on race, health and the impact of Jim Crow policy as structural violence on the life quality and life chances of African American women.”
Coincidentally, neighborhoods where there is a high prevalence of HIV are likely to be both racially and class homogenous.. Norwood became more intrigued when she discovered she was dealing with what she called a “spatial phenomenon.” She wanted to know what factors caused these HIV-prevalent neighborhoods to align so closely with poverty-stricken neighborhoods. “My research thus combines analysis of how macro processes (such as structural policies like Jim Crow) create spaces (communities and neighborhood environments) that are more vulnerable for risk of illnesses (from sexually transmitted (STIs) to everyday chronic illness),” she wrote in her Taft Center Fellow application.
This is how she discovered the historical connection as to why Black women are more susceptible to HIV. “The spatial confinement of Blacks during the Jim Crow era (1880s to 1960s) often meant living under extremely poor conditions, which not only worsened but accelerated communicable diseases and diminished prenatal care, which resulted in much higher infant mortality rates and much shorter life expectancies,” Norwood said.
In Cincinnati, local policy dictated where different groups of people lived. On the surface, policy aligned with moral views as the law demanded for equal housing among all races. Ohio had passed a law in 1965, which was similar to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that tried to enforce fair housing. However, the law was weak (Casey-Leininger, 1995). “Real estate agents, mortgage lending companies, real estate insurance companies, and individual property owners all found ways to exclude blacks from white neighborhoods and steer black demand for housing that spilled out of black neighborhoods into racially mixed areas ensuring that these too would in time bec[o]me largely black,” Casey-Leininger wrote in a paper entitled, “Planning, Community Control, and the Persistent Ghetto in Cincinnati, 1956-1980.” White professionals were steering Blacks away from white communities.
A sociological trend, which emerged in Cincinnati during the mid-1950s, did not help mitigate the segregation. Cincinnati communities endorsed the idea of community self-control – a concept which also contradicted the American ideal of equality. The idea arose out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Model Cities program – a pilot initiative which focused on implementing antipoverty programs across the United States that was geared toward including citizen participation. This program authorized federal funding to be used to help minority, economically-disadvantaged communities to become more involved in local politics (Weber and Wallace, 2012). Although many minorities advocated for new development and restructuring in their poor neighborhoods, indirectly, the program called for minorities to be segregated into different neighborhoods. When the Nixon administrated ended the program in 1974, these poverty-stricken neighborhoods no longer received the needed federal funds. While research shows federal administrators did not choose Cincinnati as one of the cities to participate in this program, administrators targeted nearby Dayton. The idea of self-contained neighborhoods was contagious, and Cincinnati embraced the idea too.
One of the neighborhoods to embrace the idea that most was Avondale. Cincinnati Council members were already working on a “Workable Program for Urban Renewal” during the mid-1950s before Johnsonhad introduced his Model Cities Program to congress. City officials worked closely with the Avondale Community Council on planning the city’s urban renewal, and the program highlighted many of the tenants of the Model Cities Program including development of poor neighborhoods and citizen participation. When the federal government asked for Model Cities program proposals, Cincinnati’s City Council was excited. Council members had been working on a similar program all along, and they sent out a proposal. However, before anything could actually be
accomplished, Nixon nixed the Model Cities program.
Since then, Cincinnati has tried to desegregate the neighborhoods, but its work has not been successful. Lynn, one of Norwood’s participants was forced to move due to the city’s gentrification efforts. A local hospital had just purchased the apartment she rented. “I’m moving into a house now – me and my dude,” she said. “We have a house out in Cypress. We lucked up on that. That’s really nice…It’s real good, but it’s dangerous down there.” Her words repeated history’s past actions; city policies and modernizing forcing a Black woman out of her neighborhood.
Today, Cincinnati remains one of the top most segregated cities in the United States. The Huffington Post has listed Cincinnati asthe fifth most racially segregated city, where the Black poverty rate is 33.5 percent and the white poverty rate is 10.3 percent (Kent and Frohlich, 2015).
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