Black History Month is meant to honor the historic struggles and achievements of Black Americans.
While understanding our history is imperative, we also must connect the dots to our current situation. History is not merely an academic pursuit, it should be actionable.
It might be tempting to think the Black struggle for freedom is behind us. Slavery was abolished, civil rights are protected under federal law and we even had a Black president. And yet Black Iowans still face disparate outcomes and unfair treatment, often at the hands of systems that are ostensibly intended to serve all of us equitably. It’s living history, and it’s worth reflecting on.
Last year, Black leaders and allies called for a “Black State of Emergency” in Iowa. Organizers cited specific instances of racist violence against Black people, but also called out systemic disparities related to Black Iowans’ health and safety:
• Black Iowans are more likely to be victims of gun violence and support for victims and their families is difficult to access.
• Black Iowans have been infected with COVID-19 at a higher rate than the total population.
• Maternal mortality is higher among Black women in Iowa.
• Black residents were disproportionately affected by the derecho in Eastern Iowa, particularly in the refugee community.
The renewed Black Lives Matter protest movement last year often was focused on police violence against Black people. However, the challenges and inequities burdening Black Americans extend far beyond crime and punishment, as the call for a Black State of Emergency demonstrated.
Reforming the law enforcement and criminal justice systems are important steps on the road to racial justice and that has earned much-needed attention, but they are not the final steps. The collective health and economic impacts of the pandemic have exposed how our state’s and nation’s support systems have gaping holes, and how people of color are more likely to fall through them.
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Those issues are not front and center the way police reform is, but they demand our attention nonetheless. Addressing them will take a holistic approach to justice and wellness for all Iowans, perhaps starting with criminal justice reform but not limited to that.
We know how to start making progress toward diminishing the disparities highlighted by racial justice activists. Black Lives Matter groups from around the state issued a joint set of demands for the 2021 legislative session, including:
• Legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions
• Limit police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement
• Reduce the state’s reliance on prison manufacturing
• Support programs promoting the health of Black mothers and infants
• Amend the Iowa Constitution to ensure voting rights for people with felony convictions
Iowa policymakers have shown some willingness to address these concerns, but only so much. The More Perfect Union Act signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds last year — which restricted some aggressive policing tactics and banned rehiring of officers fired for misconduct — was a good start, but not the comprehensive approach that is needed.
We should recognize that we are not removed from history, but rather we are living through it. This period of pandemic and social upheaval will be studied by students and scholars for many years to come. History will judge us on how we respond to these challenges.
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