Staff Editorial

Black Iowans have been denied right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness

A naturalization ceremony in West Branch on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A naturalization ceremony in West Branch on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The Declaration of Independence, signed 244 years ago this weekend, purports to be a model for people seeking to free themselves from tyranny.

But nearly two and a half centuries later, this is not yet a nation where all people enjoy the same unalienable rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Ongoing protests against racism and police violence offer an important reminder — the dream of freedom has not been realized for Black and brown Americans.

When governments fail to protect our fundamental rights, the Declaration prescribes, the people have the right to alter or abolish oppressive systems, pursuant to their safety and happiness. With inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, Iowa has an opportunity to start correcting these historic injustices.

Coronavirus

The coronavirus is disproportionately affecting communities of color. People who are Black and Latino are being infected and dying of the disease at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Some of the reasons behind this divide are racial discrimination in health care and that people of color are more likely to work as essential workers.

In Iowa, Gov. Reynolds’ refusal to close meat packing plants and issue a stay-at-home order has compounded this divide, needlessly sacrificing the lives of Iowans. Now as restrictions are lifted statewide, cases are surging. Iowa needs a more comprehensive and adequate response to the pandemic that addresses these disparities instead of profiting from them.

Education

It’s often been said that public education is a ticket to opportunity available to all Americans. But Black Americans looking across the education landscape see too many gaps and too much inequality.

In Iowa, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress and other assessments, achievement gaps persist and may be widening. In 2019, Iowa’s white fourth-graders topped their Black peers by 31 percentage points, compared to a 25-point gap in 1996.

The New Statewide Assessment of Student Progress showed continuing large achievement gaps in Cedar Rapids and other districts. The district has set a goal to reduce the gap by 20 percent by 2022.

In Iowa City, an investigative report by a high school journalist, Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, found that Black students in the Iowa City district are more than twice as likely as whites to be suspended from school. These disciplinary discrepancies are found across Iowa and push too many Iowa students from the path to an education and into the criminal justice system.

Maternal health care

In Iowa, Black women are six times more likely to die from childbirth than white women. The causes of this problem are manifold, from access to health care to racism among doctors and nurses.

But our state is only making a bad problem worse with policies that have hallowed out Medicaid reimbursement programs. According to the University of Iowa, Medicaid reimbursed its hospital about a third of what commercial insurance plans did for services like ultrasounds and deliveries last year.

Child care

In Iowa, a quarter of families live in a child care desert, and child care does not even come close to meeting the national definition of affordable. Because of this crisis, the Iowa economy loses more than $1 billion each year due to a lack of child care.

And now, as Iowans are returning to work without access to safe and affordable child care and school districts moving to a hybrid model, parents are being forced to choose between their livelihoods and their children. From better paid leave policies to well-funded schools, more needs to be done to support Iowa parents.

Housing

Government zoning regulations and bank lending policies last century conspired to racially segregate cities in Iowa.

When the New York Times last year published its 1619 Project — examining lasting effects of the North American slave trade on modern America — journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote about growing up in Waterloo, where a racist lending scheme known as redlining created stark white and Black neighborhoods.

While lending and housing discrimination are officially illegal, the racial lines between neighborhoods in Iowa cities haven’t withered much since the federal Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act were passed in the 1960s. Analysts say Waterloo still is one of the most racially segregated cities in America.

Achieving equitable housing will require robust economic empowerment programs for Black families, but also a thorough rethinking of zoning policy by local governments.

Voting

One motivation behind the American Revolution was “No taxation without representation” — the idea that people should not be subject to rules they have no part in making. Yet, Iowa still practices a form of this injustice.

Because of Iowa’s badly outdated law, nearly 10 percent of Black Iowans are barred from voting, according to the Sentencing Project. Iowa is the only state in the nation that permanently disenfranchises felons after they have completed their sentences, and minorities are disproportionately subject to felony charges.

Released felons work, pay taxes and contribute to society in many other ways. Keeping them away from the ballot box only serves to further ostracize former prisoners, making them second-class citizens. Gov. Kim Reynolds should act swiftly on her promise to issue an executive order automatically restoring voting rights, and she should refrain from imposing extra conditions or barriers.

Drug enforcement

The criminal justice system is fraught with racial disparities, but jailing people for victimless drug crimes presents a uniquely disturbing affront to racial justice.

Iowa holds an embarrassing position as a leader in arresting Black people for marijuana charges. Black Iowans are 7 times more likely than white Iowans to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to an ACLU report this year, making Iowa the 5th-worst in the country.

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The drug war is part of a larger system that victimizes communities of color, which are over-policed and where officers often use drugs as a pretext to rack up other charges. To address these disparities, state and local governments should decriminalize drugs and radically reoriented police enforcement strategies to focus on community service.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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