CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids residents used Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an opportunity to discuss what systemic racism looks like and how it can be addressed.
About 50 people attended a panel discussion Monday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in southeast Cedar Rapids. The church hosts an annual service and dinner for the federal holiday.
Systemic racism is defined as policies and practices in a society’s institutions — such as politics, economy or education environments — that harm certain racial groups and help others.
It starts with having a conversation, said Rod Dooley, executive director of talent management with the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
Dooley, who was an educator in North Carolina, said he noticed that people in the South are ready to recognize racism, possibly because they had to be vigilant during the civil rights movement. It’s not the same in Iowa.
“In some ways, this ‘Iowa nice’ — which is a good thing — as well as the thought that we’re all the same can fly in the face of understanding differences,” Dooley said. “We aren’t looking at our systems and policies through a lens of diversity and differences. Iowa’s demographics have changed. How have our policies responded?”
Disparities in reading and math proficiencies between African-American and white students in Cedar Rapids’ schools are apparent, he said.
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Panelist Ruth White agreed. White, a longtime teacher in Cedar Rapids and executive director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, focuses on equity in education.
“There is no intention to treat the students differently, but they are treated differently. Too many students of color are in behavioral classes ... in lower-level classes,” White said. “Students of color are encouraged away from AP (Advanced Placement) classes.”
Dooley said the Cedar Rapids district began surveying students to see what barriers may be holding students of color back from being involved in advanced classes at the same rate as their white peers are.
More knowledge on students’ cultural backgrounds is needed to address issues of how students learn, White said. And while area districts have tried for years to have a more diverse teaching staff, White said Cedar Rapids’ African-American students would continue to benefit from having a role model with which they can better identify.
“We are very complacent. Until something happens that makes us react, then we’re fine,” White said. “We all know reactionary responses are not as substantive as proactive.”
Disparities in housing still exist, said panelist Jasmine Almoayed, economic development manager for the city of Cedar Rapids.
“Cedar Rapids has long been known as a place that’s good for families, but that success makes it difficult for us to acknowledge that not everyone shares in that equally,” Almoayed said.
“There’s a population that still is unable to benefit from resources in the community.”
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Housing issues began in the process known as redlining in the 1930s, when the Federal Housing Administration and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation outlined a city’s neighborhoods, determining which were best for mortgage lending. Many African-Americans were not able to get a bank loan for a house, creating a “deep-seated imbalance” that persists, Almoayed said.
“If life is a marathon and if someone is 18 miles ahead of you when you start the race, how are you able to catch up?’” she said. “As a country, we haven’t been able to help others regain that lost energy. It’s a big, big challenge. We still have a long way to go.”
For a city of Cedar Rapids’ size, it needs to be intentional about helping locate resources and developments so there is not a “doughnut” where wealthy and often white residents live on the outskirts of the city, drawing amenities away from the center, said panelist Brian Pingel, pastor at First Assembly of God in Cedar Rapids.
Minorities must have a voice in the housing market, he said. The problem can’t be solved just by a few who haven’t experienced the issue personally.
Betty Kiboko, who grew up in Democratic Republic of the Congo said she has challenged herself to dispel stereotypes and recognize racial disparities on a daily basis. That’s how she hopes to progress her community.
“If it doesn’t come from inside me, then everything we are doing, we’ll just be doing it forever,” she said.
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