Conference spurs racial justice discussion


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Despite upholding what many call a reputation as a progressive leader in social, political, and national movements, several local and state officials are pointing to Iowa’s high percentage of minority inmates as a major blot on that reputation.  During a daylong forum, keynote speakers, legislators, panelists, and area residents, spoke out about the number of incarcerations for minorities — specifically African Americans — in the U.S. criminal-justice system.

However the main topic saw little discussion in the face of heated debates over the implementation of area programs to reintroduce former inmates back into society. Adrien Wing, the University of Iowa Bessie Dutton Murray law professor, said the disparity between the African American and white communities are still prevalent in today’s society.

The evidence of that, she said, is shown by the fact that Iowa incarcerates African Americans at the most disproportionate rate in the nation. “We’re the place that went for Barack Obama [for president], so you wouldn’t think that we would have this disproportion,” said Wing, who also serves as the executive director of the UI Center for Human Rights. 

Nonetheless, these disproportions tend to appear in predominantly white states, like Iowa. “Black men are an endangered species,” she said. “If what was happening to them including this incarceration, was happening to white men, it would be our top priority as a nation.”

African Americans account for only 13 percent of the U.S., population, Wing said, but in terms of prison and jail capacities, that number jumps to 40 percent. The ratio of incarceration rates for African American’s versus whites are 5.6 to 1, she said. However, in Iowa, these rates more than double to 13.6 to 1.

Calling out Iowa City’s reputation as a liberal community, Rep. Wayne Ford, D-Des Moines, said there is still a clear lack of progress made on the issue of minority disproportionate incarceration.

“Your equity has always been there … [the UI] was letting blacks go to school here before you and me were born,” Ford said. “You’ve always been ahead of the curve when it comes to certain issues. This one you’ve been real behind on, and you’re paying the price.” 

Acknowledgment is the first step to dealing with the problem, Ford said, so holding the conference was important for addressing the issue on a larger scale. North Liberty police officer Juan Santiago of the city’s high-risk unit said the criminal-justice field lacks a sense of circumstantial understanding for many African American individuals.

“I don’t think that Iowa or Johnson County has a problem with racial profiling or even racial discrimination,” Santiago said. “I think the problem in Johnson County is that a lot of us in our field have what I have coined as ‘cultural disability’ because we don’t truly understand the different cultures that we are trying to help.” But Whitney Weston, a conference panelist, said she encounters this cultural disability regularly when assumptions are based on her skin color. 

She said members of the African American community often commit crimes as a survival tactic. In Iowa, Westin said she has come across many stigmas because of skin color, such as the assumption of hailing from the South Side of Chicago. “That’s a bias right there — in case people didn’t know, black people do come from other places than Chicago,” she said.

Weston said there is an overall lack of empathy in the corrections system. Other panel members shared personal experiences in the criminal-justice system.

Phillip Coleman, outreach coordinator of Urban Dreams, a human service program in Des Moines, said the primary issue starts with crime charges against minorities. “You have to train the police to deal with minorities,” Coleman said.

Because Iowa’s correctional system has a relatively low number of inmates relative to other states, Wing said the disproportionate incarcerations in Iowa can realistically be decreased. “We can do it if we have the will to do it,” she said. “It will take the private-public partnership, it will take the town and the gown, it will take all of us out of our busy schedules deciding that I want to make a little difference in this.”

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