Over at Steve Wiggin’s blog, I was commenting on a recent post of his, Majority Report. He brought up the WASP myth and put it in context, although his focus was mostly on the Protestant part. In my comments, I mentioned the pluralist background of American society. WASPs have made up a large chunk of the ruling elite, but they’ve never been the majority of the population, contrary to the belief of many.
His post stood out to me partly just because that kind of thing is always of interest to me. But it was already on my mind because of an article I read recently from a local newspaper, The Daily Iowan — the article being Is this heaven? No, it’s beer by Clair Dietz. It appears to be in response to an exhibit being put on by the University of Iowa, German Iowa and the Global Midwest. I live near where the old breweries used to be located, along with the beer caves. My landlord, Doug Alberhasky, was quoted often in the piece, as his family’s business is a well known local distributor of alcohol, John’s Grocery.
There once was much clashing, sometimes violent, between WASPs and so-called hyphenated Americans. Many ethnic immigrant groups, especially German-Americans, loved their beer and liquor. The WASPs here in Iowa were seeking prohibition before the rest of the country, as Iowa became a major destination for German immigrants. Entire communities spoke German and carried on their German traditions, including the making of alcohol. There is a great book I’ve written about before, Gentlemen Bootleggers by Bryce Bauer, about one such community during Prohibition and how they became famous for their bootlegged Templeton Rye.
Another article on the topic comes from the other local newspaper, Press-Citizen: Iowa has deep German Roots by H. Glenn Penny. That article interested me even more. The author points out that there used to be three German-language newspapers here in Iowa City, an impressive number considering there are only two newspapers left in town at present: “In fact, the German language was so widespread that many German-Iowans lived here for decades without ever learning English.” Much of the Midwest was like this, especially this part of the Midwest such as the neighboring states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. This was German-American territory where German culture and language was the norm, not the exception.
This all came to a halt with the beginning of World War I, such as with the Babel Proclamation that outlawed any language besides English. And German-American independence and self-determination was further decimated with World War II. The cultural genocide was so complete that collective memory of this past was lost to the following generations. German-Americans were always the largest immigrant group and the largest ancestry, far beyond the meager numbers of WASPs, but they suffered for not having sufficient political power among the ruling elite. German-American culture was almost entirely lost, as if it never existed, until recent interest in ethnic ancestry was revived.
Still, this kind of political reaction seems to go in cycles. Every time there is a movement of populations, fear and bigotry inevitably follows. As with Germans of the past, the same thing has happened with immigrants of Arab, Persian, or similar looking ethnicities. This is true even within the country, as when Southerners migrated to the North and West. More recently, it has been true of blacks moving almost anywhere, but especially when it involves supposed inner city blacks. The Press-Citizen article made me think about this, when Penny wrote about how initially German immigrants were welcomed and even sought out:
“Iowa: The Home for Immigrants.” That was the title of the 1870 volume published by the Iowa Board for Immigration in Des Moines. It was translated it into multiple languages and distributed it across Northern Europe. The goal was to spur Europeans to abandon their homes and move to the state.
And it worked. Germans were the most numerous group to arrive. In fact, German immigrants consistently accounted for the largest number of foreign-born people in Iowa from the 1850s through the 1970s.
That instantly struck my mind. That sounded like a “workforce recruitment” campaign the Iowa government has had to attract people from other states. There has been a pattern of young Iowans leaving the state and so, in order to counter the demographic loss and brain drain, a need to attract young professionals and young families. Starting in the 1980s, the Iowa Department of Economic Development has advertised in Chicago by putting up billboards — here is an example (from About those Chicago billboards by Adam Belz):
This advertisement ran on billboards along interstates in Chicago in 2007.
Belz points out that, “It’s really a far cry from the local myth that Iowa has been running Section 8 ads in south Chicago for years, but as Steve Rackis, the guy who oversees Section 8 in Iowa City, points out, everyone drives on the interstate, and everyone likes the idea of a safe, quiet place with good schools and no traffic. So certainly, some low-income black people have seen these ads and responded by moving to Iowa.”
Most of the people who respond to such billboards aren’t poor, unemployed inner city blacks, aren’t stereotyped welfare queens, thugs, and gangbangers. The fact of the matter is most people coming from Chicago to Iowa are middle class white people. That is what happened to my family back in the 1980s, when my family left the Chicago suburbs in order to move to Iowa City where my father returned to school for a PhD program. My parents were young middle class professionals with young kids, the demographic targeted by the billboards. I’m sure my father saw such signs, as he headed into Chicago for work, whether or not they were part of the reason for his decision to move his family to Iowa.
Besides, most of those on housing assistance in Iowa City, according to data kept, are whites and long-term Iowa residents. Among these, the majority are elderly or disabled (many elderly and disabled move here because of the multiple hospitals, including a world class university medical center and a major Veterans Affairs facility). The rest are young families and most of these are employed, as unemployment rates are low here. There probably aren’t many “welfare queens” in the area, considering all the local opportunities for jobs, education, and training. Plus, the worst off poor people in Iowa are rural whites living in dying farm towns and trailer parks, not blacks from Chicago.
Considering the proven racial targeting of blacks by the police in Johnson County, it isn’t exactly a welcoming place to blacks and so isn’t a place most blacks are going to choose to move to. In interviews, many blacks living here explained that they saw their situation as temporary simply for the sake of finding work and saving money, and as soon as they were able they planned on leaving.
Sure, all kinds of people end up in a town like Iowa City. It’s a diverse community with people from all over the world. There is a growing population of non-whites here, although it is mostly Asians and Hispanics, not blacks. Even among blacks, they come from many other places besides Chicago, including a fair number of African immigrants. Of five blacks I’ve worked with in my present job with the city, two were from families that had been in Iowa for generations, two were from Africa, one might have been from Chicago or somewhere like that, and another I never knew long enough to learn of his background; three of those people I know were married with young kids and three had degrees from the local university.
Since I was a kid in the 1980s, violent crime has vastly decreased across the country. Iowa has always had low crime rates, violence and otherwise, and that is still the case. For more than a decade, the violent crime in Johnson County, where Iowa City is located, has continued to drop. This is the time period during which there has been an increase in the minority population. There is actually less crime now in Iowa with more minorities than there were back when there were fewer minorities. Yet there is this public perception, largely based on mainstream news reporting, that everything is getting worse, despite the fact that Iowa has been doing well even during the recession.
The real fear is that German-Americans, Hispanics, blacks, or whatever group is most reviled at the moment is a danger to the American way of life. They are bringing bad things with them. And they are taking our country away from us. States like Iowa have always depended on immigration from other countries or simply other states, but this dependence has led to resentment. When WWI came around, it didn’t matter that German immigrants had settled Iowa and cleared the land, had helped make America the country it is, and shaped the entire cultural experience of the Heartland. Suddenly, they were threatening strange foreigners.
The experience of blacks has been different, of course. They were considered a threat right from the start, even though most early blacks didn’t come to America by choice. Interestingly, before Anglo-Americans settled Iowa, there were already free blacks, likely escaped slaves, living right here in Iowa City. Blacks were the first Iowa Citians and yet today, after the era of sundown towns driving blacks out of states like Iowa, blacks are considered as foreign as were those WWI era German-Americans.
Donald Trump rides white outrage in gaining support as a presidential candidate. A century ago, his German-Scottish ancestry would have made him an untrustworthy outsider. But today he stands as the defender of American whiteness and promises to make America great again. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton represents the last vestiges of the WASP rightful ruling elite and disinterested aristocracy of professional politicians who for centuries have defended the status quo from uncouth ethnics like the Drumpf family and their crude business wealth being used to usurp political power (not to mention having to deal with meddling Jews such as Bernie Sanders). The uppity WASPs make their last stand to maintain the respectable political order.
WASPs never were the majority of American population. But they have maintained most of the political power and social influence for centuries. As the non-WASP and non-white population grows, WASPs are slowly losing even their position and privilege. There are challengers on all sides, as the old WASP dream falters.
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Previous blog posts:
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
Centerville, IA: Meeting Point of Diversity & Conflict
The Cultural Amnesia of German-Americans
Equal Opportunity Oppression in America
The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
Substance Control is Social Control
The Shame of Iowa and the Midwest
Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience
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The Great Chicago Migration Myth
by Mikel Livingston and Steven Porter, JConline
It was during the early 2000s when Curbelo, then a program coordinator at Iowa State University in Ames, first encountered the belief that an influx of former Chicago residents was wreaking havoc on local crime rates.
“That caused the police to start targeting minorities around town,” Curbelo said. “It led to harassing the minority population in a town that didn’t have a lot of diversity.”
A public forum in 2008 helped the community confront and move past the issue. When Curbelo moved to Lafayette earlier this year, he was surprised to be confronted with the notion yet again.
” ‘All people from Chicago are criminals, they’re black, they’re on welfare,’ ” Curbelo said, reciting the misconceptions. “No. They’re hard-working people looking for better opportunities. That’s part of the American dream and nobody can judge you for moving to a place to better your family by the color you are.”
The black ‘Pleasantville’ migration myth: moving from a city isn’t pleasant
by Robert Gutsche Jr
Ironically, Iowa City’s downtown – on the doorstep of the University of Iowa – continues to be more violent than the Southeast Side. Every weekend, white college students vandalize buildings, vomit on sidewalks, and assault each other, though it’s the Southeast Side – and its presumed Chicago migrants – who bear the brunt of the responsibility for the city’s crime.
How the Media Stokes Racism in Iowa City – and Everywhere
by Eleanor J. Bader, Truthout
Central to this discourse, of course, is the belief that low-income women, aka “welfare queens,” are taking advantage of government programs and feeding at the trough of public generosity. “Chicago has come to mean more than just another city,” Gutsche concludes. “It signals the ghetto, danger, blackness – and most directly, of not being from here.” That two-thirds of the low-income households registered with the Iowa City Housing Authority were elderly and disabled – not poor, black or from Chicago – went unacknowledged by reporters. Similarly, the drunken escapades of mostly white University of Iowa students have been depicted by reporters as essentially benign and developmentally appropriate. “Just as news coverage explained downtown violence as a natural college experience, news coverage normalized southeast side violence as being the effect of urban black culture,” Gutsche writes. “News stories indicated that drunken packs of college students were isolated to the downtown, whereas southeast side violence was described as infiltrating the city’s schools, social services and public safety.”
A community divided: Racial segregation on the rise in Iowa City
by Matthew Byrd, Little Village
Some renters felt the underlying presence of racial bias when discussing public assistance with Iowa City landlords […] There are other plausible explanations as well. A 2013 report issued by the Iowa City Coalition for Racial Justice found a high degree of overlap between race and class within Johnson County, with 40 percent of black residents living below the poverty line compared to 16 percent of whites. The fact that Iowa City is the fourteenth most segregated metropolitan area by income in the country, according to the Martin Prosperity Institute, means that, in a county where you are more likely to be poor if you’re black rather than white, segregation by income can also mean de facto segregation by race.
On a similar note, black residents in Iowa City are much more significantly limited in their ability to take out mortgages than whites. The Public Policy center study found that, while blacks comprise nearly 6 percent of the city’s overall population, they only account for 1 percent of housing loans and are much more likely than their white counterparts to be denied loans (the study’s authors do concede, however, that without access to credit scores they “cannot conclusively assert that the higher denial rates … is due to race”).
Whatever the case may be, the rate of racial segregation Iowa City experiences is disturbingly high.
Does Section 8 housing hurt a neighborhood?
In Iowa City, nine of 10 voucher holders is either elderly, disabled or working. More than 85 percent of vouchers in the Corridor are issued locally, not to out of towners. Voucher holders who get in trouble with the law, who shelter people with criminal backgrounds, or who don’t return letters and phone calls are kicked out of the program.
“We review the police dockets and the newspapers on a daily basis,” said Steve Rackis, who heads up the program in Iowa City.
Within the past two years, 230 vouchers have been terminated in Cedar Rapids. Iowa City terminates about 10 people each month. […]
Myth: Most Section 8 vouchers are held by people from Chicago.
Fact: 93 percent of vouchers in Cedar Rapids were issued locally. The program requires one year of residency and has a three- to five-year waiting list. 4.8 percent of voucher holders come from Illinois, representing about 50 households. In Iowa City, 9 percent of vouchers come from Illinois, representing about 114 households. […]
Myth: The cities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City have billboards in Chicago encouraging Section 8 voucherholders to move to Eastern Iowa.
Fact: The Iowa Department of Economic Development occasionally runs billboards in Chicago encouraging people to move to Iowa, but they are geared toward professionals, extolling Iowa’s hassle-free commutes, for example. […]
Myth: Section 8 is mostly for people who don’t work but survive on welfare.
Fact: In Iowa City, 1,149 households in the program — 91 percent — are elderly, disabled or working. The same is true of 879 households in Cedar Rapids, or 82 percent of those in the program.
Leaving Chicago for Iowa’s “Fields of Opportunity”: Community Dispossession, Rootlessness, and the Quest for Somewhere to “Be OK”
by Danya E. Keene, Mark B. Padilla, & Arline T. Geronimus, NCBI
Iowa City and the surrounding Johnson County, located 200 miles west of Chicago, have received small but significant numbers of low-income African Americans from Chicago. The Iowa City Housing Authority (ICHA), which serves all of Johnson County, reported in 2007 that 14 percent (184) of the families that it assists through vouchers and public housing were from Illinois, and according to housing authority staff, virtually all of these families are from the Chicago area (Iowa City Housing Authority 2007). Additionally, the ICHA estimates that about one-third of the approximately 1,500 families on its rental-assistance waiting list are Chicago area families. Little is known about why families choose eastern Iowa as a destination, but speculation among ICHA officials is that the moves are motivated by shorter waiting lists for subsidized housing and the fact that Johnson County has a reputation for good schools, safe communities, and ample job opportunities.
From the perspective of a growing emphasis on poverty deconcentration in both academic and policy circles (Imbroscio 2008), leaving Chicago’s high poverty neighborhoods for Iowa’s white middle and working-class communities represents an idealized escape from urban poverty. However, the experiences of participants in this study speak to the challenges as well as the benefits of long distance moves to what are often referred to as “opportunity areas” (Venkatesh et al. 2004).
Little is known about the experience of Chicago families in Iowa, but preliminary evidence suggests that Chicago migrants may face many barriers to acceptance. Despite their relatively small numbers, African Americans from Chicago are visible outsiders in Iowa’s predominantly white communities. In Johnson County, blacks made up only 3.9 percent of the population in 2008, an increase from 2.9 percent in 2000 and higher than the 2008 state average of 2.9 percent (United States Census Bureau). Iowa City, a college town that is home to the University of Iowa, contains considerably more ethnic diversity than many Iowa communities and is home to a small number of African-American professionals, students, and faculty. However, the arrival of low-income African Americans from Chicago is a highly contentious issue and has given rise to a divisive local discourse that is often imbued with racialized and class-based stereotypes of urban areas.
The recent migration of urban African Americans to Iowa has also occurred in a climate of uncertainty about the state’s economic future (Wilson n.d.). Over the past few decades, Iowa has lost numerous sources of well-paying employment. The state has also experienced significant population losses, particularly among the college educated (Carr and Kefalas 2009). While college towns such as Iowa City have been somewhat protected from these demographic and economic shifts, in Johnson County, dramatic increases in free lunch program participation and growing demands for subsidized housing over the last decade indicate increasing local need (Wilson n.d.). According to documentary filmmaker Carla Wilson (n.d.), many Iowans feel that in the last few years, poor blacks from Chicago descended on the state, placing a tremendous burden on social service resources at a time when budgets are already stretched. As stated in one concerned letter from Don Sanders (personal communication, [February 3], 2004) to Iowa City’s City Council, “We’re turning into a mecca for out-of-state, high maintenance, welfare recipients. These often dysfunctional families are causing serious problems for our schools and police.” […]
Iowa is not only a place where the social terrain is unfamiliar, but a place where Chicago migrants experience a vulnerable status as stigmatized outsiders. As Danielle says, “It’s someone else’s city,” a place where, according to Marlene, “we are only here because they are letting us be here.” The stigmatization of Chicago migrants plays a profound role in shaping social relationships, both among fellow migrants and between Chicago migrants and Iowans. Several participants describe how Chicago is often blamed for “everything that goes wrong in Iowa City,” particularly in relation to drugs and crime. According to 53-year-old Diane Field, “It’s just, Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. I mean, everywhere you go they talk about us. There were drugs in Iowa long before anyone came from Chicago.” This association between drugs, crime, and Chicago is also prevalent in the local media. For example, one newspaper article about a fight in southeast Iowa City drew numerous racially charged on-line comments about the problems caused by Chicago migrants, despite the fact that “Chicago” was not even referenced in the article.
While participants describe the “helpfulness” of many Iowans, they also note that some oppose their presence. Carol, for example, says she was told by a fellow bus passenger, “I’m tired of all these black folks coming and messing up our small town. I don’t know why the hell y’all up in here, but y’all need to go back where you came from.” While Carol explains that encounters such as these are rare, Jonathan considers this attitude to be more pervasive. He says, “They don’t want us black people down here. Even though it’s some black people down here like me and my family that want something better for our life. They don’t understand that.”
Several participants describe facing discrimination specifically because of where they are from. In this context, 33-year-old Tanya Neeld says that she has begun telling people that she is from Indiana, Michigan, or “somewhere else, not Chicago.” Participants also describe attempts to differentiate themselves from those individuals who “bring Chicago to Iowa” (by getting involved with drugs, for example), by emphasizing their own desire to find a “better life” and to escape discursively condemned Chicago neighborhoods. Additionally, in order to resist the label of, “just another one from Chicago,” many participants also describe keeping to themselves and avoiding relationships with other Chicagoans. For example, Michelle, says, “They act like they really don’t want us here. They try to make like we keep up so much trouble. I don’t know what the rest of these people are doing. That’s why I stay to myself.”
Other participants describe avoiding, in particular, people in their immediate neighborhood who were often fellow Chicagoans. A large portion of Chicago movers live in a few housing complexes on the southeast side of Iowa City, and several participants explain that it is difficult to find landlords elsewhere who will rent to them. Michelle says, “A lot of places here don’t accept Section 8 [rental assistance]. I figure it’s because they don’t want that type of thing in their neighborhood.” These sentiments were echoed by 25-year-old Christine Frazier who says, “It sort of looks likes they section us off.”ii
In the context of residential segregation and stigmatization, many participants also describe the challenges of forming ties with Iowans. A few explain that they actively avoid interactions with white Iowans as a form of self-protection. For example, Christine describes how when she first started working in Iowa, her coworkers, who were all white, left her out of their conversations and talked about her behind her back. She says that from this early experience, she learned to stay to herself at work. She says, “I still have my guards up. You know, it affected me when I got other jobs because I don’t want to interact.” Michelle describes how she has adapted to frequent encounters with racism in Iowa. She says, “I’m basically a friendly person, but I can be not friendly as well. So, that’s the way I cope with it. I just act like they don’t exist. I just stay in my own little world.”
Separation from social ties in Chicago and barriers to the formation of new ties in Iowa leave many former Chicagoans socially isolated and reliant on highly individualized strategies of survival. The desire to be self-sufficient is a common theme throughout the interviews, and in the context of social isolation, some participants may be left with no alternative to relying on themselves. As Tara says, “I don’t count on these people in this neighborhood. I count on myself because myself would not let my own self down.”
Without social rootedness, for many participants, Iowa is not a place to call home, just somewhere to be for a while in order to “do what you have to do.” Or, as Lakia says, “Living in Iowa is like doing a beat,” (a reference, she explains, to a prison sentence). Without social ties, and in the context of stigma and economic vulnerability, the nature of this “beat” is also extremely fragile and many participants have stories of friends and family who eventually returned to Chicago or moved on in search of somewhere else to “be OK.”