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Guest opinion: Racism hidden in Iowa City

BY GUEST OPINION | MARCH 24, 2014 5:00 AM

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Last week, the Chicago Tribune published an article about the immeasurable movement of blacks from inner-city Chicago to Iowa City (“Iowa City provides fresh start for some urban dwellers,” March 18).

Since I had done my dissertation about Iowa City’s Southeast Side, I happily spoke with the Tribune’s writer and tried to guide her along to sources.

She certainly covered her bases: She told stories of personal struggle, of “cultural differences,” and of drugs, welfare mothers, jail, and program assistance.

The stories that weren’t told, however, were the ones people never want to read, the ones that keep getting missed — that of indoctrinated whiteness and naturalized racial fear of newcomers, which contributes to an unfriendly and dangerous community for newly arriving blacks.

In fact, so as not to alarm the public that in Iowa City “several neighborhoods are populated substantially by people who moved from Chicago,” the Tribune turns to Brian Loring, the executive director of Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, to deliver a hopeful and safe attitude about the current racial relations in the city.

“People have kind of settled into the notion that Iowa City is going to be diverse,” Loring tells the paper, “both economically and racially.”

But that’s not quite accurate.

What statements like that say — and what the Tribune story really tells us — is that until someone vocalizes the everyday controversies rather than stories of challenges overcome, stories of real, everyday racism will remain hidden within the cracks of the Iowa City’s segregated neighborhoods.

Take the story of “Nell,” a black mother of five. I met Nell when I was conducting research on Iowa City’s Southeast Side for a forthcoming book about the media-constructed “Southeast Side,” an initial stop for many “urban” arrivals to Iowa City.

Nell moved to Iowa City from New Orleans in 2001. When she moved in, says, she found Iowa City’s neighborhoods safe and quiet. She liked the schools. Jobs paid well.

But it was only a matter of time before her kids would stand out in their mostly white North Side school; soon, regular childhood horseplay and fast-talking drew scrutiny. And the situation worsened when one of Nell’s three sons who usually walked his sisters home from school got suspended.

After one of the girls got jumped on her walk home, Nell complained to the white principal and was shocked by the response. “Well,” the principal told Nell, “if you got off your behind and walked them, then maybe this wouldn’t happen.”

Nell lost her composure. The principal called police.

Nell was banned from the school, charged with “verbal assault,” and fined $250. But more than anything that happened from that exchange, Nell said, was that she no longer felt part of the community. That distance grew when people didn’t believe her story or chalked it up to whining.

But Nell tells of other, similar stories that have happened since:
• the time when Nell got kicked out of her apartment for making noise, though the next-door white college students partied all of the time and got to stay;
• the time a white parent chaperone slapped Nell’s kid on a school trip and apologized with a patronizing letter and four coupons for ice cream (not even enough for all of Nell’s kids);
• the time when one of Nell’s children was told by a white schoolmate, “Ya’ll need to get back on a bus and go back to Africa.”

Over the years, Nell’s finished her associate’s degree and has been working in daycares and community-resource centers. She’s been on and off of Section 8 affordable housing, often finding ways to pay the bills without the help. Iowa City is still her home.

Her children, however, fell victim to racism and the slow-paced city and moved back to familiar environments. “They couldn’t take Iowa anymore,” Nell says. And she persists.

“I came here to better educate myself as well as my children,” Nell says. “I am working, and my kids are in school. And even though they want to put us out or call the police, when they are teaching the class they have to teach that little white child, they have to teach my child, because they have to get to that little white child.”

Robert E. Gutsche, Jr. graduated from the University of Iowa in 2012. His book, A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place, and the Press in Iowa City, is due out later this year by McFarland.


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