Guest Columnist

The fight for racial justice needs all our voices

People hold up signs and draw on the sidewalk during a chalking protest outside the Coralville Police Department on Mond
People hold up signs and draw on the sidewalk during a chalking protest outside the Coralville Police Department on Monday, June 1, 2020. People wrote messages to express anger and frustration at police treatment of black Americans. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A young black Iowan named Robert once told me he felt he’d never experienced racism. It was the first time I’d heard that from a black person. He was about 15 years old. It was less than a year later that a customer Robert had just served at work called him the N-word in the parking lot. In front of Robert’s boss. Innocence, shattered. This week, I listened to Robert sob uncontrollably for 20 minutes. Like many, he is in anguish.

Why am I bringing it up? In part because Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, another black Iowan, recently wrote about his loneliness as an elected official speaking out on racial issues in Iowa. He said addressing these issues is not necessary to get elected here, but that if more elected officials would do so anyway, the burden would be spread more evenly and our chances at improving justice would increase. He’s right.

Hundreds of thousands are protesting peacefully, pleading for change. Even when we feel compelled to condemn rioting by the few, that does not end our moral obligation to acknowledge the righteousness of the cause of the many, and reach out to advance it.

I humbly suggest that every one of us has an obligation to lighten the load black Americans carry by putting some of that load on ourselves. If we thought we’d be on the right side in the 1960s struggles for justice, now is our chance to prove it. Our lives take on greater meaning when we serve, and we should for many reasons.

As a Christian, I know it is what Jesus would do. Every black person is a child of God. We must listen to their stories and allow our hearts to be moved. God calls on us to comfort them and to be peacemakers to the ways in which our system harms them.

As a hunting, fishing, gun-owning person from rural Iowa, I want black Iowans — one of whom gave me some great turkey hunting tips this spring — to feel welcome in an outdoors culture that some stereotype as racist. And I want that outdoors culture I love to not be stereotyped, in part because its existence depends on its growth.

As a parent, I want to teach my children how to stand up for what is right.

As a government watchdog and former public corruption prosecutor, few things make a good public servant angrier than a bad public servant. Whether officer or auditor, we must serve all people equally and never, ever use the color of law unjustly to snuff out freedom or pursue personal prejudices.

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The black experience can seem far from those of us who were raised in or live in rural areas today. We might not know a single black person, or we might have black friends in our lives who don’t bring up race in conversation for fear we will be uncomfortable. During my time outside the rural Midwest and now living in Des Moines, I hear over and again personal experiences of dangers, frustrations, and presumptions that made me realize that although we lived in the same country, we inhabited different realities. To find our motivation to speak up, we may need to accept the disturbing idea that our America is not yet what it feels like to us personally. But we can also change that.

I’m asking you to act, fellow Iowans, because our country needs us to act. If we feel we’re “not political,” remember that indifference and inaction are still political. By doing or saying nothing, we are weakening the chance that our values prevail. Choosing silence is choosing not to serve our country in a time of need.

Race can be hard to talk about. I know I’ll hear I chose the wrong word or phrase somewhere in this. That’s fine. Most people find the intention within our words, easing their burdens and renewing their hope. Others will easily chip in an encouraging “I agree” after someone else (I’m looking at you) has stated the general idea.

More importantly: what kind of values drive a decision to do nothing about injustice because it might feel awkward or hard? Not good values.

If you think you can’t make a difference, recall Mother Teresa’s words: “we can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Now, think of your mother. In George Floyd’s last minutes, we heard him call out for his mother. I trust your great love gives you something to say about that. No matter how small, please say it.

It will be easier each time after that.

How else do we help fix this? Challenge racist statements with firm love. Give to an organization devoted to promoting justice. Support public policies and politicians that move us toward peace, unity, and equality. Organize a candlelight vigil in your town and let that little light of yours shine. Then, after doing the right things over and over, know you’ve left this world a better place for Robert and others.

Rob Sand is Iowa’s state auditor.

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