Commentary

Iowa’s new law raises question: ‘What is systemic racism?’

June 22, 2021 10:52 am

Des Moines students gathered at the State Capitol on April 26 to protest two education bills, including one restricting teaching related to racism and sexism. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Faculty and staff in public schools, including public universities, are not to engage in the discussion of “systematic racism” in Iowa or the U.S. when conducting trainings of faculty, staff, and students.

That’s according to House File 802, recently passed by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Training instructors are permitted to discuss various examples of racism in the U.S., such as slavery or racial oppression and are even permitted to talk about “laws resulting in sexism, racial oppression, segregation, and discrimination.”

Strangely, therefore, public school trainers can talk about “the color of law” but they cannot reach the conclusion that simply because legislators have adopted laws that favor one race over another that this is evidence of systematic racism.

HF 802, therefore, begs the question of what is “systematic racism.”  If there is a system of laws that discriminate, isn’t that “systematic?”

But beyond this contradiction, HF 802 raises the question of what the state legislature sees as the causes of segregation, oppression, or discrimination. Do lawmakers conclude that the cause is something besides “systematic racism” or are they saying that indeed “systematic racism” may be a cause, but we are not allowed to discuss that? The latter is pure censorship, whereas the former is an alternative interpretation of oppression — that there may be repression, but it is not related to anything systematic.

If racism is not systematic, then what is it?  The legislation does not say, but the term “systematic racism” seems to be a rewording of “systemic racism” which has been commonly identified as an explanation for continued racial inequality in the U.S. The meaning of systemic varies from context to context but it typically refers to laws and institutional practices that disadvantage nonwhite populations.

Examples include the “redlining” that was a practice of lenders, facilitated by the U.S. government, to designate White neighborhoods for home loans but not Black neighborhoods. Or the pervasive mistreatment and violence shown towards Blacks, especially Black men, by local law enforcement in the U.S.

But if these examples of discrimination and oppression are not systemic, then what are they? Again, the Iowa legislation gives us no answer, but the logical implication is that if there is not some system that is responsible for inequality then it must be individuals — either individuals who practice discrimination or those against whom discrimination appears to be practiced.

The former is the “bad apple” theory of racism: There is no systemic racism, but there are a few bad apples that commit racist acts. While these acts are wrong and should be prosecuted, they do not reflect a flawed system, only flawed people.

But the bad apple or flawed people explanation can also be turned against the people who are being discriminated against. Perhaps their unequal status is not really attributable to discrimination but to their own faults — they are denied the home loan because they have poor credit, not because they are Black, or they were forcibly stopped by the police because they were doing something illegal. In other words, they deserved whatever has happened to them.

Either way, by denying the existence of systemic (or systematic) racism, the Iowa Legislature is saying that where there is discrimination, oppression, or segregation, there is no system (legal or institutional) that is responsible, instead it is the actions of individuals.

If systemic racism is over, when did it end?

This begs the question — when and how did systemic racism end in Iowa and the U.S.? Was slavery practiced by a few bad apples or was it an economic system that not only benefitted owners of plantations but even residents of Iowa who were able to purchase cotton clothing at a price that reflected slave labor? Did systemic racism end with the end of slavery? Did it end with the legalized expulsion of Meskwaki, Sauk, Sioux, and other Indian nations from Iowa? Or did it end with the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s? The Iowa Legislature does not say.

But if systemic racism has ended in Iowa, then why was the state of Iowa slow to act in 2020 when presented with the facts that workers in meatpacking plants, many of whom are Hispanic, Black, or Asian, were forced to work in conditions that increased the probability that they would be sickened by COVID-19 and die?

State government delayed action by denying that an outbreak was taking place at the Waterloo Tyson plant and Gov. Reynolds refused local calls to close the plant. Finally, Tyson closed the plant because it lacked a sufficient number of healthy workers to operate the plant. In defending her record a year later on Fox News, Reynolds cited the need to protect “my farmers and producers.”

The same farmers and producers, nearly all of whom are white, were also at the heart of recent comments made by Sen. Chuck Grassley regarding a 2021 federal court decision that limits the line speeds of pork processing plants in states like Iowa. Grassley opposed the limit, citing its alleged negative effect on farmers and industry while making no mention of the impact of increased line speeds on the safety of meat plant workers, including the many who are nonwhite.

Are these not examples of systemic racism in Iowa — state leaders calling for protections for largely white farmers and producers, while ignoring the impacts of continued and rapid production on the health and safety of a diverse work force? Is the state Legislature requiring public schools and universities to ignore such examples as these and instead only look for the “bad apples?”

In my 2020 book, “Green, Fair, and Prosperous — Paths to a Sustainable Iowa,” I feature a chapter “Why is Iowa So White?” in which I document that Iowa’s relative whiteness is not due solely to accident or to individual choices, but to concerted efforts by the state and federal government as well as major institutions, such as meatpacking companies, to either remove nonwhites, to treat them as second-class citizens, or to exploit them for dirty and difficult jobs while paying them low wages.

In the book’s final chapter, I cite University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, whose recent work demonstrates that Black Iowans are worse off by a variety of measures — education, employment, poverty, homeownership — than Blacks in most other states. Is this an accident or is there something systemic about Iowa that disadvantages Blacks compared to most other states?

Under HF 802, are trainers at the public schools prohibited from citing these findings simply because they point to systemic factors in Iowa that put nonwhites at a serious disadvantage even in comparison with most other states? If so, clearly the Iowa Legislature is not interested in the truth.

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Charles Connerly
Charles Connerly

Charles Connerly recently retired after serving 13 years as professor and director of the University of Iowa School of Planning and Public Affairs. Prior to that, he taught urban planning at Florida State University for 27 years. In 2009, he founded the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, a University of Iowa unit that has organized a dozen partnerships with communities throughout the state that generated over 280 student-centered projects that benefitted these communities. He has published three books.

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