The Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

I’m a Midwesterner and specifically an Iowan. Like anyone else, I have a natural tendency to defend this place I consider home. Take for example when a commenter, Skepoet, said in a comment that the Midwest lacked diversity. I responded with pointing out a multicultural tradition in the Midwest.

At the same time, I always want to be as honest as possible, with myself as much as with others. I’ve come to realize, from further study, a major part of history outside the South that demonstrates how pervasive racism is in our society. I speak of sundown towns. I learned that even in my beloved Midwest, even in Iowa, sundown towns weren’t unusual. It wasn’t an accident that so many blacks ended up in the inner city. They were forced to live there when they were forced to leave the towns they had moved to following the Civil War. As I wrote in one post:

“A problem of freedom involves the opposite of being a part of a free people. Free societies/communities have often defined themselves by who is excluded. He references James Loewen’s work on sundown towns in this regard.

“I was generally aware that sundown towns existed, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them called that. They are basically towns where blacks weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) welcome after dark, so unwelcome that their lives could be in danger (such as being arrested, beaten, or lynched). I was even aware that towns unfriendly to non-whites have existed all over the United States. Racism is pervasive throughout American society. Still, I was surprised by how pervasive these sundown towns supposedly were, especially in the far North and far West.

“There was an era following the Civil War where an anti-racist idealism prevailed. It took hold most strongly in the Republican majority areas outside the South. Blacks were very much welcomed into towns across the country and blacks took up the new opportunities available to them. What I never knew before was that blacks had settled in so many small towns and rural areas outside of the South. Like Loewen before he did the research, I just assumed most areas always were lacking in minorities.”

I learned that this might have happened quite close to home.

“For example, a nearby town is West Branch in Cedar County. My brother and his family live in West Branch, and he has noted the old boys network that keeps that town from changing, despite all the other small towns nearby experiencing lots of change. A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there.”

“Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930.

“This appearance and disappearance of blacks happened all over around this time. During the 20th century, blacks increasingly became concentrated into big cities. Loewen was unable to find any legal documents, newspaper accounts or oral history about what caused the blacks to leave Cedar County, but he did find plenty of evidence to explain what happened in other places. In some cases, white mobs forced entire black communities to vacate a town, a county or larger area (Oregon was a sundown state in that there were anti-black laws enforced to keep any new blacks from becoming residents). Whether through official decree or unofficial policy, many of these places remained all white for most or all of the 20th century, some still remaining all white to this day.”

This is the history. Now for the present reality of that persisting history.

Iowa ranks worst in the country when it comes to racial disparity of marijuana arrests. Much of the Midwest also fits in with this same sad pattern. These are the very states that so often rank well on many other social measures. What makes me most sad of all is the fact that Johnson County, in which I live, is the third worst county in Iowa.

This supposed multicultural-loving Iowa City that is my hometown obviously needs some work living up to its own ideals. The racial influence (read ‘black’ population) from Chicago coming in from I-80 is turning out to be too much for the local population, even here in this liberal college town.

I don’t know why such a problem exists in a place like this. The police here don’t seem abusive or oppressive. What has led them to racially profile to such a degree? And what has caused them to think this was acceptable or even expected of them?

By the way, the same day I came across the above info, I also noticed an article about Iowa City being listed in the top 100 livable cities. There were 5 cities in Iowa that made the list:

“Cedar Rapids was named 29 while Ames ranked 31 and Iowa City was 46. Des Moines ranked 69 and West Des Moines ranked 76.

This is extremely typical. Iowa City, in particular, is always making these kinds of lists. One of the best cities for retirement, for raising family, for going to college, for economic growth, and on and on. Yes, Iowa City is a great town for a town of its size. It has great public transportation, bike lanes, lots of trails and parks, a lovely downtown, and high civic participation. I could go on and on about why I love this place.

This most recent list is about most livable which includes a wide variety of factors. But the question is:

Livable for whom?

16 thoughts on “The Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

    • You’re welcome.

      I felt compelled to write aout it. I was slightly shocked Iowa ranked so badly on such an issue. Iowa on most measures is usually about average or sometimes above average. We have our share of problems, but they tend to seem relatively mild compared to many states. Not in this case.

      Yes, let us hope.

  1. Though it makes me more sad than anything. I appreciate the topic also. Kudos to you both for making it known. I’m quite a bit older than you, but have remained true to me liberal ways, so this really bothers me. I feel as if we’re only free so long as we behave, and that our behavior is being dictated and outlawed by a narrow minded few who own the seat of power. And I cannot help but think Jim Crow reincarnate when I see how many black men make up our prison populations.

    • Kudos to anyone who maintains their liberal concern and compassion for those devalued in our society. It is quite an accomplishment to not become completely cynical. I suppose the fact that this type of thing bothers me as well demonstrates that my cynicism has yet to overwhelm me.

      I nod my head in affirmation to what you say in your last sentences. I’m sure you already know my views on the matter. It does seem that something akin to Jim Crow is still with us. I don’t know that it reincarnated since I don’t know that it ever died.

      There was plenty of overlap beween the early Civil Rights movement and the beginning of the War on Drugs. Right in the middle of that overlap was Nixon’s presidency and his Southern Strategy.

  2. This reminds me off here in the northeast, in Connecticut specifically and the so called ‘decline’ of our cities. We used to have wonderful lively cities but, the white people decided they didn’t like the blacks, and minorities that moved into next to them. So they all moved out. White flight is what they call it. I hear we also had covenants here in deads to restrict ownership to blacks.

    It’s quite sad. I personally live in an area with a good mix of everyone it also happens to be the poor part of town ( used to be a city but merged back into the town when the textile mills left ). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that “you live there? wow. It must be dangerous”. I still don’t know what people are talking about and i this sort of issue continues today.

    I’ve never had issues here. I walked all over the place as kid. Played on the street with neighborhood kids. The only issues we ever had was falling off bicycles and stupid arguments with each other.

    I honestly don’t understand the whole issue. I know wonderful blacks, hispanics, whites, asians. Not all of us are blessed with good housing, high income jobs, etc. The least we can do is try to help.

  3. The Northeast is a bit different than Ioa and the Upper Midwest. There has been a fair amount of ethnic diversity in my neck of the woods. Admittedly, it has been diversity that has mostly been assimilated into a general whiteness at this point.

    As I stated out in my other post, ethnics such as Germans once were considered racially separate from Anglo-Saxon whites. They used to have distinct cultures in this country. That diversity was intentionally destroyed, but I don’t know to what degree the residents of the Midwest can be blamed for an oppressive national atmosphere.

    Certainly, Midwesterners can be blamed for the sundown towns. There isn’t exactly white flight around here like you speak of, though. In these smaller Iowa towns, there isn’t presently anywhere else fo the whites to go. Anyway, there were minorities in this town even back in the 1980s when I was a kid. It isn’t like we are being swamped by minorities, except maybe for the Asians moving to this town for college. But I suppose to some people even a small percentage of minorities seems like a lot in a white majority farming state.

    I still don’t understand the racial profiling. I don’t get the sense that the crime per capita is much different than it ever was. The only significant change at least in Iowa City is that the town is growing larger. It is beginning to lose that sense of being a quaint small town. I think we are just going through birth pangs in our becoming a bigger city.

    Fortunately, there is a lot of civic activism here. So, this issue will get plenty of attention.

    • So is the Midwest as homogeneous as it is always made out to be? Maybe people are just not used to it. I don’t think it is a new thing around here. A long history of various immigrant groups in my area and i don’t hear anything bad about them.

      I think it might just being afraid that they will steal your culture away. I imagine that is legitimate threat for people. If anything more so now politics have shown that we are not open to new ideas.

      I personally think that their are good things to learn from other cultures that we can combine with ours.

      But, history has shown that immigrant groups tend to lose their language, culture, and that doesn’t appear to be changing from what i see.

      I am a big fan of small cities. I should check out the midwest sometimes. I haven’t really left the northeast and i really don’t know why.

      • I see that you found my root and rot post. I briefly spoke about the Midlands origins of Midwestern culture which includes tolerance of multiculturalism. It coincides with a history of inter-ethnic conflict, but there is a certain amount of live-and-let-live attitude in allowing diverse communities.

        “So is the Midwest as homogeneous as it is always made out to be?”

        I would say that it only seems homogenous if you’re not very familiar with the Midwest and its history. Then again, many Midwesterners who haven’t moved around much even within the Midwest probably don’t know much about the Midwest and its history.

        A century of assimilation has destroyed much of that original diversity and made it more homogenous. This makes some of the surviving diversity less obvious, except for the likes of the Amish. Also, the nature of Midwest diversity is an overall diversity that is made up of diverse pockets of homogeneity. All the Amish are the same within their Amish communities, but diverse from the people around them. That is how the Midwest used to be and still is in places.

        The Midlands culture is based on segregation in terms of ethnic enclaves and ethnic islands. The positive side of this is that people are allowed their differences within their own communities. Unlike New England or the Deep South, forced assimilation is less part of Midlands society.. The dark side is that segregation hasn’t always been perfectly willing self-segregation.

        The inner city isn’t the product of racist sundown towns. No, the inner city is just an ethnic enclave. Black people just like living in crowded poor violent urban neighborhoods. Ah, the beauty of Midlands multiculturalism!

        I talk some more about the Midlands and Midwest diversity in the following posts:

        • I’ll have to read a few of these and inform myself more.

          I don’t think forced assimilation was / is required here in New England. It may look like that on the surface but it seems there are still divisions. We are predominately catholic here so evidently not everything was assimilated. Food dishes seems to differ between families and their ethnic makeup. I imagine this sort of 90% assimilation is quite common throughout the united states. We still have people that dress up in green on saint Patrics day to celebrate their Irish heritage ( which would be most people where i live in ct ).

          • There isn’t much in the way of laws enforcing assimilation anywhere in the Northern states. The South has more assimilation practices such as English-only laws. What happened during the world wars was more of an oppressive atmosphere such as with acts of violence and discrimination.

            Parts of the Midwest wouldn’t be all that different from what you describe of New England. The basic culture of the Upper Midwest supposedly came from migration patterns that originated in New England. This is explained in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed and Colin Woodard’s American Nations.

            Here is Woodard’s map:


            A city like Chicago in the Midwest certainly has plenty of surviving multiculturalism. The Lower Midwest culture originated in Pennsylvania and a city like Philadelphia also is rather multicultural. Cities all over the North have more obvious cultural diversity than would be found in many Southern cities. I went to high school in Columbia and I didn’t know of any ethnic neighborhoods in the way that is more common in Chicago or New York City.

  4. I live in Ames now and people always say, “Ames is a great place to live”. I ALWAYS repsond, “for white people”. I hate living here. People are consistently racist and when you call them on it, they respond the same way — “i grew up in a town that didn’t have black people” (as if that is an excuse). White people love it because its the utopia they dream about — all of the faces look like them. I, on the other hand, am constantly uncomfortable, go days without seeing other black people (would be weeks if it weren’t for me having a black boss) and I am constantly reminded that I’m not wanted here.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your experience. But I’m not surprised. Of course, Ames is far different than Iowa City. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see many non-whites, assuming I leave the house. This town is actually quite multicultural and multi-racial. I work in a parking ramp as a cashier and maybe 10% of my customers and coworkers are non-white.

      I went to a picnic yesterday with a somewhat random selection of people (various friends of friends) and around 5 out of twenty people there weren’t white, including several blacks. What also made it different from a picnic elsewhere is that at least half of the non-whites were university students from other countries. A black lady I met was from the Island of Saint Vincent and I don’t even know if she identified with American racial categories.

      The larger presence of minorities in Johnson County, however, doesn’t make racism go away. In some ways, it makes it worse, specifically in terms of institutionalized racism such as policing and news reporting. That is the problem. Yet I hope that is changing, even if too slowly.

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