Dec 11, 2011

Being African-American in Iowa: Politics

Iowa Pubic Radio (IPR) correspondent Rob Dillard (@IPRDillard) has been working on a year-long assignment on diversity. In March-April 2011, IPR ran series of stories on Being Latino in Iowa that highlighted the Latino experience in my home state. Dillard covered stories on the effect of Latino populations on small towns and the importance of Latino food and culture. The series returned to focus on a different population in our state--African-Americans.  According to IPR, U.S. Census data show there are now 90,000 African-American adults living in Iowa. According to state department of education enrollment figures, there are almost as many African-American children enrolled in our public schools. My husband and his family have lived in the state since the 1960's and I found it interesting to hear what Rob Dillard learned about Being African-American in Iowa in 2011. His series was divided into five parts: education, economy, politics, health, and spirituality. I have written about my family's experiences with education and economy.

Last night I was watching the Republicans verbally duke it out at the Iowa Debate (thanks Ezzy, for reminding me to watch) and decided to watch the Twitter response. Besides all of the commentary about what $10,000 can buy and Newt's statement that Palestine is "an invented state", several tweeps noted that the audience was overwhelmingly white. They questioned why this debate was held in Iowa, a state that is 95% white and mostly rural.

The reason the debate is held in Iowa is simple: we are the first in the nation to caucus (i.e. elect) a candidate in any political party. According to the Iowa Caucus Project, a move by our state legislature in the 1970s to improve the delegation process led us to be first in the nation. Our government wanted more people to be able to take part in the political process, so they pushed for election reform and required a minimum of 30 business days between precinct caucuses and the county, district and state conventions.  During those 30 days, the caucuses are advertised so that more people know about them and can participate. In 1972 the State Convention was slated for May 20. Allowing for 60 business days to occur before the State Convention made the Iowa Caucus date January 24--first in the nation. It has been that way since 1972. (See Slate magazine's great article about the Caucus here.)

What tweeps watching the Iowa Debate may not know is that we do have some diversity in Iowa: I am sitting in a house where I am the only white person, and my children attend a school that is over half non-white. There are pockets of extreme diversity in our state. Those pockets of diversity have greatly influenced our politics, and as I've written in the past, Iowa has a history of doing what is right instead of what is popular when it comes to some political issues--especially Civil Rights.

The Iowa Public Radio podcast, Being African-American in Iowa: Politics, was aired in July of 2011. It taught me a lot of about the history of African-American involvement in Iowa politics at the state-level. It is an impressive history to me because for African-Americans to be elected, they need to cross the so-called "color line" and gain the votes of whites in their districts. The African-Americans interviewed in the IPR podcast did that--they went door to door, they hosted events, they communicated their concerns and interests. A repeated theme in those interviews is this: "We need to focus on what we have in common vs. what we don't have in common." Those who were elected got there by focusing on the issues, but not necessarily by talking about race. The podcast talks about Helen Miller, an African-American woman who currently serves in the Iowa House. Miller is the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, which is not a committee dealing with a traditionally African-American issue. She states that she got there by really communicating and focusing on the issues. There seems to be a significant amount of "colorblindness" in campaigning that leads to African-American success in politics.

In my mind, the notion of focusing on the issues to get elected is one that is very idealistic. It can happen in a state like Iowa because there isn't much diversity in the state as a whole. But there are definitely issues that need to be addressed without a "colorblind" lens. These issues are human rights issues, and it is my hope that eventually a candidate--of any color--will begin to discuss them.

These statistics are from the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans:
  • The poverty rate in 2008 for African Americans was 35.6%. The corresponding rate for Iowa is 11.5%
  • 70.9% of African-Americans rent, as opposed to owning, their own home. The corresponding rate for the state as a whole is 27.1 %.
  • The unemployment rate for African-Americans in 2008 was 8.9%. For Iowa as a whole, it was 3.9%
  • Median earnings for African-Americans was $19,174. For Iowa, it was $26,959. 
Then there is also a considerable achievement gap for all people of color in Iowa. According to the Iowa Department of Education's "Gap Paper,"
Gaps exist in the achievement of Iowa students. In 2010, the percent of all students in grade four enrolled for full academic year (FAY) scoring proficient, as measured by the Iowa Tests, was 78.5 percent. The percent of Black (54.5 percent), Hispanic (61.2 percent), free or reduced lunch eligible (66.6 percent), or English Language Learner (ELL) (51.3 percent) students was considerably less.
Interestingly enough, these Iowa issues are also issues we face as a nation. Yet none of them were mentioned in last night's Republican debate. In my mind, these are human rights and social justice issues that concern us all. Politicians, no matter what their color, can no longer afford to be colorblind.

I am interested to see when, if ever, the 2012 candidates will really and truly discuss issues of poverty, unemployment and achievement.

What issues do you think politicians should be discussing? What was your reaction to the Iowa Debate?


  1. My ears are still bleeding from listening to that debate, Jen. I particularly enjoyed how Newt said that an entry-level janitor makes more than an entry-level teacher, but never suggested that perhaps teacher's salaries should be raised. I took his statement about having English be the "only" and "official" language of the U.S. like kick in the stomach. As long as we devalue multilingualism, we will not be able to compete with other countries that don't see it as a threat.

    Not once did the word poverty come out of any of their mouths. That fancy $10,000 bet showed exactly how far removed they are from real people, working real jobs. Check out this link to read-up on what the poverty thresholds currently are, as set by our own government:

    According to our Census Bureau's 2010 ACS Brief, 1 of 5 children lives in poverty, with African-Americans making up 38.2% and Hispanics 32.3% of the child population. You'd think these would be a big enough statistics for them to want to discuss.

    Great post. I didn't know that about Iowa.

  2. Thanks for reminding me to watch, Ezzy...even though a lot of it was just sickening! I don't think that these candidates are at all in touch with the reality I see in my neighborhood or in my classroom each day. 

    Those poverty statistics are so alarming. And I guarantee that in the months since the Census, poverty has gotten worse, not better. How do we get the government to realize and discuss the reality facing so many Americans? It seems like those in power have very selective hearing...


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