"Rarely do we talk about it, or our public officials acknowledge it," says Ronnie Dunn.
"It" is probably one of the dirtiest words in the American English lexicon. "It" is race.
Dunn, a veteran, professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University and Cleveland native, has spent a lifetime studying race. His knowledge is encyclopedic — names, events, dates, figures, he recalls it all. He'll finish your sentence, especially if you're quoting someone else.
"Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland region, this Metropolitan Statistical Area, is one of the most racially segregated in the country," he says. "We consistently are. You always hear them talk about our diversity. Yes, there is ethnic diversity, but we are still racially isolated. We live in segregated communities."
It was Dunn's research on racial discrimination in traffic stops that prompted the city to install traffic cameras. "I recommended cameras because they provide an objective means of determining who was violating traffic laws," Dunn said in 2013. By this point, Dunn had been researching discrimination in ticketing in Cleveland for 20 years. He literally wrote the book on it.
To Dunn's dismay, 21 of 26 stationary cameras were installed on the eastside, where the city's population of African Americans is most concentrated.
It was Dunn and James Hardiman, at the time the legal director of the Ohio ACLU and chair of Legal Redress for the Ohio NAACP, who helped mobilize African American leaders to write the Department of Justice following the 2012 chase in which 137 shots were fired into the vehicle of Timothy Russell and Melisa Williams. The DOJ answered their call and spent nearly two years investigating the Cleveland Police Department, the second time the federal department had examined the city's law enforcement in 10 years.
"The thing that is really striking about [the D.O.J.'s report] is that they only mentioned race once," Dunn says. That mention was on page 49 of a 58-page report.
"It's really a shame that these issues are allowed to persist when you consider the history of this city, particularly the racial-political history. [Cleveland] was the first major American city to elect an African American mayor with Carl Stokes in 1967, having had three African American mayors, and black leaders at the highest levels of municipal government."
Despite Dunn's calm demeanor and edifying ways, years of work studying the history and modern incarnations of racial discrimination have taken their toll on his worldview.
"I'm less optimistic now that we'll see the substantive reforms come out of this process as I initially thought," he says.
He has not been deterred, however. And his work continues, including consulting on reforms of the city's citizen complaint of police officers review process. It's an area on which he's focused recent studies, and an area the federal monitor in charge of the city's consent decree with the Justice Department found fault. For instance: Cleveland has more than 300 citizen review complaints still open. A fifth of those are from two years ago.
"We must believe things can get better or they won't," Dunn says. "Although it might not seem that way, I do maintain a sense of hope and optimism in spite of the evidence to the contrary. And truthfully, it is my students and young people of today's openness to differences and diversity that gives me hope for the future."