As discourse over downtown high-rises and the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) dominates the public conversation leading up to the Iowa City Council race, an entirely different set of issues drives the District A contest between incumbent councilman Rick Dobyns and his sole challenger, nurse and community activist Pauline Taylor: racial disparity in Iowa City.
Covering the city’s west, south, and southeast sides, District A is home to most of Iowa City’s black population which has been subjected to a wide racial divide between itself and the rest of Iowa City.
One of the flashpoints exposing this divide has been the enforcement of the Iowa City’s juvenile curfew ordinance. Ever since its passage in 2009, data collection mandated by the city council has consistently found that black youths are disproportionately issued citations for curfew violations, with 41 percent of citations going to African-American youths in 2014 according to the a recently released equity report commissioned by the city. When asked about remedies to this problem, Councilman Dobyns said he had “no position at this time” but offered to “work with relevant groups in our community—United Action for Youth, Coalition for Racial Justice, the Iowa City Community School District, etc.—to determine what changes to the policy or the enforcement of such policy are needed.”
Meanwhile his opponent, Pauline Taylor, a nurse at the University of Iowa Hospitals and an Iowa City resident of 40 years, said that the real issue was the lack of social services available to African-American youth such as after-school programs and youth centers, explaining, “We need to create certain avenues so that these young kids can let out their energy and enjoy themselves without fear of being arrested or chastised or having a record for being a bad person. You know, they’re not bad kids, they’re not bad people they just need things to do, to channel their energy.” Taylor also stated that much of the issue “boiled down to the economic disparity in the area,” noting that, “As a parent, if you’re working two jobs and you’re not there, oftentimes the children perhaps do wonder and do things that they shouldn’t be doing. But if the parent doesn’t have to work two jobs then maybe there will be more parental guidance.”
Issues concerning policing, however, extend far beyond the curfew law. The same equity report from 2014 found that, despite the fact that African-Americans only constitute 5 percent of Iowa City’s population, a third of the 6,224 people arrested by the Iowa City Police Department last year were black and, of all drivers stopped between the ages of 30-39, 21 percent were black. When asked about specific solutions to this clear racial disparity, Dobyns cited his past work on the council with fellow councilmen Jim Throgmorton to create an “ad hoc diversity committee” to tackle some of these issues and promised that, “If elected, I will continue to move changes forward through engendering collaboration amongst council members and community members who have different views and backgrounds.”
When asked about applying more comprehensive anti-bias training programs in Iowa City, such as the one currently utilized by the Madison Wisconsin Police Department, Dobyns offered his support, saying, “These programs create a climate for urgent policy change when needed—as was noted this summer when immediate policy changes on de-escalation techniques and recreation center supervision were put in place by our city manager. We train because we recognize that over-policing doesn’t make the recipients of police scrutiny more likely to stay on track. It makes them more likely to feel like criminals. Confronting authority is not just a choice but also can occur because of systemic nudging by police.”
Dobyns argues that Iowa City Police “realize that dignity enhancement is an important form of crime suppression.”
“I have advocated for these skills to be part of training with the full support of our city manager and police chief,” he said. “I think that these policies do not reflect the desires of just one group or another, but come from an understanding of the collective spirit of all people in Iowa City.”
Taylor also supports a greater focus on anti-bias training, saying that Iowa City has “immense resources” to pour into sensitivity training for police officers, adding that, “Officers who have already displayed a sensitivity towards folks of color or other nationalities, they could maybe lead or help the program.” However, Taylor wanted to note that, “Supporting these types of programs could imply that maybe the city thinks all officers are bad, and that’s not true, and I’m not saying any officer is ‘bad.’”
Housing is also very much an area of concern when it comes to Iowa City’s racial divide. A report released last year by the University of Iowa Public Policy Center found that Iowa City’s housing stock was incredibly segregated along racial lines, mostly as a result of income disparities between whites and blacks and discriminatory practices on the part of the city’s landlords. Councilman Dobyns argued that, “The need for scattered affordable and workforce housing is absolutely needed,” and also explained that he “worked to develop policies such as placing a sales tax on the ballot that was unprecedented by devoting 10 percent of its revenues to directly encourage affordable and workforce housing.”
“My discussions with city staff led to at the formation of a broadly based working group that developed a prototype for future inclusionary zoning,” Dobyns said, adding that, “The segregation of housing of different price ranges is an example of how the power of pricing can cause racial segregation. I work to resist policies that encourage the misuse of that power.”
Taylor says, “Inclusionary housing is a good first step in the right direction. It’s going to take some baby steps to get where we need to be…It’s important to encourage developers that get TIF funds to create units for low-income residents in their development.” Taylor also backed the idea of building small cottage units for low-income residents, saying, “Not everyone needs a 2,000 square foot house for heaven’s sake.”
Whichever candidate ultimately prevails when District A voters go to the polls on November 3, it is clear that—despite the focus on upscale development and downtown master plans—the issue of Iowa City’s wide racial divide will soon have to be faced as a topic of top concern.
Matthew Byrd, originally from Chicago, is currently a writer and proud resident of the People’s Republic of Johnson County. Angry screeds should be send to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 186.