In a Chinese restaurant in Des Moines, I heard a woman angrily asking a waiter for a better spoon. The spoon she’d been given is known as a duck spoon and has a wide flat bottom and a short handle. She didn’t want it. “Just a normal spoon,” she said. “For this restaurant,” the waiter replied, “this is the normal spoon.”
The moment the waiter walked away, I heard the woman say it. She said that phrase so commonly spoken by those protesting their innocence, while still committing the crime: “I’m not racist, but …” Her complaint was about the spoon, the design, how she didn’t like it, how she hated being forced to use them in Japanese and Chinese restaurants. Her frustration with the spoon spilled over into the attitude of the server and the restaurant as a whole. Yes, it was actually racist — these ideas of what made one utensil better, one utensil worse, and what should be “normal.”
Racism is the American the infection we refuse to diagnose. Recently, the New York Times 1619 Project sought to lay bare the racism that runs through the double helix of our national DNA. In response to the project, lawmakers and conservative pundits lashed out. Because to see the American enterprise as something inherently infected with racism, is to admit that our ideas of freedom and equality for all were never meant to be for all.
This reality is reflected on a local level. Iowa is 90 percent white. And our whiteness didn’t happen by accident. In his 2005 book, Sundown Towns, historian and sociologist James W. Loewen reveals that until very recently the prejudices of the Jim Crow South swept across all of America, including Iowa, where rules — formal and informal — kept people of color out of towns at night.
And while our rules may have changed, white bias persists. A 2016 report found that Iowa has the greatest racial disparity in prison populations. Additionally, an ACLU report points out, “Iowa has the largest racial disparity in the country of arrests in marijuana possession.” Iowa has only four lawmakers who are people of color.
Every time Congressman Steve King says something overtly racist, our media is deluged by lawmakers and citizens saying King doesn’t represent us or them, or anyone. That we aren’t racist, but … but, he’s here. But it’s his actual job to be a representative of his district and he keeps getting reelected. The Republican Party refuses to do anything about him.
And there is no “I’m not racist, but …” when it comes to our president, whose comments are not just misunderstandings of the “liberal media.” Not when he calls Mexican men rapists and tells four minority lawmakers to go back to where they came from. Not when he puts immigrants in cages on the border.
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I am told people don’t like being called racist, but I’ve never seen the point in remarketing hate as a more palatable version of itself. Hate is just hate, even if it sits in the White House or next to me at a restaurant.
So, yes Iowa, you are racist. When schools and neighborhoods are built on racial divides. When Waterloo and Cedar Falls regularly rank as one of the worst cities for black Americans. When “whites only” fliers are posted all over Iowa City. And when, as I was looking to buy a house in Cedar Rapids, Realtors quietly whispered about “crime statistics” in “certain neighborhoods” and warned me, a white, single lady away. To insist “we are not racist, but …” would be to ignore the reality of the world we created.
What would happen if we stopped protesting our innocence and instead came square with our crimes? And I wonder too what would happen if the next time in a restaurant I wasn’t just a silent observer to racism? Because polite quiet is also how the infection spreads.
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