Racism remains hidden in Iowa City

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: March 28 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:15 am in

By Robert E. Gutsche Jr.

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The Chicago Tribune published an article (March 18) about the immeasurable movement of blacks from inner-city Chicago to Iowa City. 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 arriving blacks.

The Tribune asked Brian Loring, executive director of Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, about racial relations in the city.

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

But that’s not quite accurate.

Until someone vocalizes the everyday controversies rather than stories of challenges overcome, stories of real, everyday racism will remain hidden within the cracks of Iowa City’s segregated neighborhoods.

Take the story of “Nell,” a black mother of five. I met her 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. She said she found Iowa City’s neighborhoods safe and quiet. She liked the schools. Jobs paid well.

But, soon, regular childhood horseplay and fast talking drew scrutiny in their mostly white North Side school.

And the situation worsened when one of Nell’s three sons who usually walked his sisters home from school was suspended.

After one of the girls was jumped on her walk home, Nell complained to the white principal. “Well,” the principal told her, “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.

Nell said she no longer felt part of the community; people didn’t believe her story or chalked it up to whining.

Nell tells of other, similar stories that have happened since.

Over the years, Nell finished her associate degree and has worked in day cares and community resource centers. She’s been on and off Section 8 affordable housing, often finding ways to pay the bills without 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.

Robert E. Gutsche Jr. graduated from the University of Iowa in 2012 and is an assistant professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Florida International University. Comments: robertgutschejr.com

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