Staff Columnist

Troubling rise to the top of a racial disparity list

An aerial photo of Waterloo, looking northeast at the Cedar River and the downtown area, from roughly the same time as Iowans statewide were working to implement the eight recommendations of a visioning process known as Iowa 2010. (Gazette Archives)
An aerial photo of Waterloo, looking northeast at the Cedar River and the downtown area, from roughly the same time as Iowans statewide were working to implement the eight recommendations of a visioning process known as Iowa 2010. (Gazette Archives)

Back in 1999, when I still was a relatively new Iowan, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack asked state residents to imagine what life would look like 10 years in the future.

Through a series of town hall meetings and other outreach, the Governor’s Strategic Planning Council worked with state residents to develop a plan called “Iowa 2010: The New Face of Iowa,” which included eight main goals primarily centered on economic stability and opportunity. The No. 1 goal established by the group was for Iowans to welcome a diverse population.

The strategic narrative and action items in the final report were packed with ways the state could and should entice young, former Iowans back to the state, and suggestions of how existing residents could ease the cultural transition of immigrants and refugees. It perhaps was the first time many Iowans were asked to consider changing the state’s Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. (It was nearly a decade later, in 2007, before such considerations became reality.)

But beyond noting a general need to “evaluate” state anti-discrimination laws and “make a concerted effort” to enforce and strengthen them, little in the vision highlighted racial disparities. Even so, metrics intended to measure progress toward the “welcoming” goal were clear that existing racial inequities were holding the state back. For instance, Iowans were asked to track and compare non-white and white graduation rates at all education levels, changes in the level of race discrimination complaints filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, statewide housing trends and the demographics of Hawkeye State newcomers.

Clearly, Iowa 2010 stakeholders understood that ending, or at least purposefully working to narrow economic gaps between racial groups, was a necessary component of achieving greater statewide stability and opportunity.

Similar measurements may have recently appeared on your social media feed under the headline: “The Worst Cities For Black Americans.” List inclusion was linked to prosperity gaps between blacks and whites — homeownership, unemployment, income, etc. — compiled by 24/7 Wall Street, a Delaware-based financial news and opinion company founded in 2006.

All but four of the 15 worst are in the Midwest. Of particular interest to Iowans is the top (or, more aptly, bottom) rank: “No U.S. metro area has larger social and economic disparities along racial lines than Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa.”

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Some already have begun to disparage the rank, noting it is based on census and other data that already has improved. But it isn’t just this specific snapshot in time that should be unsettling or unacceptable; it’s the trend: Just three years ago on the same list the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area was ranked 10th, behind a ninth-ranked Des Moines metro. Des Moines has since disappeared from the list, while Waterloo-Cedar Falls has significantly worsened.

When Iowans came together 20 years ago to imagine the future, they saw equal economic opportunities for all Iowans regardless of geography, station, gender or skin color. Is that still what we see today?

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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