Few are surprised that one of the whitest states in the nation happens to be the 3rd worst state for Blacks, according to a new report. A Black lawmaker, gubernatorial candidate and community activists decried the ranking and said the best place to tackle the inequities begins at the Iowa Capitol.
“First of all, this country is bad for Black people. Period. Racism is embedded in the DNA of all systems in the U.S.,” longtime community activist, Sharon Zanders-Ackiss, special director at theIowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said via email. “Iowa is only a product of what has always been.”
Lori Young, an activist who is self-employed and on assignment as communications and operations director forJust Voices Iowa, a nonprofit organization fighting racially-biased policing, said via email Black Iowans are largely invisible and systemic racism in education, employment, housing and criminal justice has been allowed to “thrive and go unchecked."
24/7 Wall St., a financial news and opinion company in Delaware, ranked Iowa 3rd on a list of worst states for Blacks, using governmental data. Minnesota ranked 2nd, and Wisconsin ranked 1st. The site also ranked the worst cities – Davenport, Des Moines, and Waterloo, 13, 11, 6, respectively – on the list of the 20 worst cities for Black Americans. Midwestern states dominated the list.
“Our legislature is less than progressive in understanding the needs of Black people in this state,” said State Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines. “They just don’t get it.”
Deidre DeJear, who is running for Iowa governor, said via email a lot of work needs to continue to address the disparities that exist in the state.
Through her work creating financial coaching programs, building public and private partnerships and developing Iowa small businesses, DeJear said she knows firsthand “how our state is failing our communities.”
Gaines, who is chair of Iowa’s Black Legislative Caucus, said the legislature is the primary place to work on the “massive changes” needed for Black Iowans. The caucus includes Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo; Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf and Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines and Iowa Democratic Party Chair and State. Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames.
Gaines, a former teacher in Des Moines for 40 years, said the disparities stem from “a lack of leaders in this state to make Iowa more progressive when it comes to African Americans.”
Two bills pushed by Black Democrats this legislative session failed to make it out of committee. Wilburn, the Iowa Democratic Party Chair, and others had pushed for reforms to Iowa’shate crime laws, after a Black man, Michael Williams, was “lynched” in 2020 near Grinnell. Gaines and others had pushed for theCROWN Act, a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.
Gaines said Iowa needs racial profiling legislation, and legislation allowing formerly incarcerated individuals to vote. Currently, formerly incarcerated individuals can vote because of an executive order signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, but the measure is temporary and could be rescinded by her successor.
According to the report, Blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Twenty-five percent of Iowa’s prison population is Black.
Young said Blacks and “white allies” are beginning to wake up to Iowa’s inequities. She said every law and policy that touches education, employment, housing and policing and criminal justice must be examined for disparity “in practice.”
“Look at the data,” she said. “Data doesn’t lie.”
How the Legislative Black Caucus can foster change
Gaines said Iowa’s dismal ranking by 24/7 Wall St. reinforces the need for the Black caucus, which prioritizes legislation that benefits Black Iowans. Gaines wants the caucus to create legislation to address the achievement gap for students and reduce incarceration rates by lowering the penalties for certain crimes, such as those that “African Americans are stopped and frisked for — primarily drugs.” She also wants to see more done to help Blacks invest and buy homes.
“Primarily, we need legislation — bipartisan legislation — that will make the improvements,” she said.
Gaines also wants the Black caucus to raise awareness throughout the legislature about the conditions affecting Black Iowans.
“I want to keep hammering at it,” she said. “Nobody’s ever done that. Ever. Ever. Ever.”
“Me leading the caucus is going to be the voice for the legislature in understanding the conditions of our state and proposing bipartisan legislation to make a difference,” Gaines said. “The next three years, that's my goal.”
Iowa’s rankings by 24/7 Wall St. include:
Poverty: 31.9% for Blacks, compared to 10.1% for whites
Homeownership: 24.4% for Blacks, compared to 73.6% for whites
Unemployment: 10.6% for Blacks, compared to 3.3% for whites
Median household income: $32,139 for Blacks, compared to $62,097 for whites
Young questions whether “our leaders and elected officials care that more and more Black professionals, hardworking people and families are leaving Iowa for a more welcoming community."
"We need corrective and forward-looking legislation that seeks to correct or repair the disparities enacted and funding to non-profits that address and find solutions to these disparate realities, and we need it now,” Young said. “Unless, of course, our leaders don’t see the value in diversity and would be happy if Iowa was all white people. Then just do nothing and maintain the status quo.”
Zanders-Ackiss said laws that govern administrative rules should be accessible and equitable for all.
Gaines believes focusing on legislation will be key for Black Iowans.
24/7 Wall St. developed the rankings using an index that measured the gaps between Blacks and whites in income, high school and college education, home ownership, unemployment, mortality and incarceration using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Bureau of Justice.
Banner photo of Des Moines skyline. Photo by Black Iowa News