Beneath a veneer of “niceness,” the Midwest is among the very worst places to live in the United States if you’re a person of color.
That’s what historian and University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon discovered while completing a report for the Iowa Policy Project titled “Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity, and Public Policy in the Midwest.” According to his findings, flyover country harbors a history of racist policies and practices, the legacy of which we’re still living with today. The result is that racial inequality in the Midwest is greater than anywhere else in the country, even the South.
These patterns don’t only exist in cities like Chicago or Detroit, Gordon said. In fact, he and his students have studied the history of racial inequality right here in Johnson County, Iowa and have found documentation of an effort to keep African Americans from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods in Iowa City and the surrounding area. Rural Midwestern states like Iowa also suffer from a form of segregation called hypervisibility, which arises when a racial group is outnumbered by a white majority and leads to greater scrutiny and prejudice.
Understanding the facts about racial inequality in the Midwest and the history that’s led us here can help us wake up to the state of affairs where we live and take the appropriate steps — on both a policy and personal level — to improve them.
The Homogenous Midwest
I met literary artist Dr. Tameka Cage Conley, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, at the Witching Hour festival in downtown Iowa City a few years ago. It was a chilly November night, scarved students hopping between musical performances, poetry readings and lectures. In a dimly lit room, Cage Conley read poems moving from topics of race to desire to motherhood.
While taking questions after the reading, a young Black woman asked Cage Conley if she was worried about having her work being co-opted by a white audience. The artist said that she refused to concern herself with what white people would think of or do with her work. She chooses to live above the racism and sexism she saw around her, and above what she called the “demure white supremacy of the Midwest.”
Growing up in Louisiana, Cage Conley was familiar with overt racism. But, she pointed out to me in an interview, the homogenous culture of the Midwest was just as problematic.
“If I think about the Midwestern white person as a character,” she said, “I would say that the character is neighborly. The character is a good Samaritan. The character is oblivious. The character is safe, right? None of those things, quote, unquote, look like a racist.”
But Cage Conley struck upon a core truth — Midwesterners have a history of keeping a comfortable distance from people they see as different from them. That would explain the response as more Black and Brown residents have moved from Chicago to Iowa City over the past decade.
White Supremacy, White Preference
Part of what’s so harmful about the homogenous culture of the Midwest is that whiteness is seen as “normal.” That’s the message Alejandra Giron received when she immigrated to Iowa from Guatemala at 8 years old.
“I was the only person of color in my class at the time,” Giron said. “My friends would make jokes like, ‘Oh, you’re a coconut.’ At first I was like, ‘What is a coconut? I’ve never heard of that.’ And they were like, ‘Well, basically you’re Brown on the outside, but white on the inside.’”
Giron said she felt this was her friends’ way of trying to relate to her. But it had another effect, too.
“I never talked about my culture or where I came from,” she said. “I knew I had to bring out the whiteness in me to be able to be part of the group.”
Her little sister was in kindergarten when they immigrated.
“There were kids that would pull her hair and tell her, ‘Go back to your country; you’re dirty,’” Giron recalled. “That really broke my sister. She was just really quiet afterwards, because she didn’t want to be told that she wasn’t good enough to be here.”
Alejandra Giron is 25 years old now, and she’s proud of her Guatemalan roots. But she said it’s still a struggle to embrace her background in a place like Iowa.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t be fully myself,” she said. “Latin people are really enthusiastic, and really colorful, and really out there, and really open. In the Midwest it’s more conservative, so I don’t want to stand out, and I don’t want to give people a reason to make a stereotype out of me or push me out of the social group.”
The History of Housing Segregation
Beginning in the early 1900s and into the 1970s, nearly 7 million Black Americans living in the South made the journey North seeking a better life. Known as the Great Migration, Colin Gordon said this movement was motivated by the promise of better job opportunities and a desire to escape the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
“There were particularly strong opportunities during the mobilization for World War I and World War II,” said Gordon. “Not only was the economy booming, but so much of the regular workforce was overseas that this opened up much better jobs for African Americans and for women in those wartime economies.”
As Gordon dug deeper, though, he found no effort from Midwesterners to welcome Black people into their communities. Instead, he found quite the opposite.
The heart of Gordon’s findings: Segregation policies established before Black communities even began settling in Northern cities are the root cause of racial inequality in the Midwest. While discrimination was severe in the South, at least white and non-white communities were comparable in size and lived side by side.
Gordon found documentation from the early 1900s in cities including Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Milwaukee of racial zoning laws that enforced white-only neighborhoods.
“The white homeowners and developers and city leaders respond to what they view as the threat posed by the Great Migration and erect a sort of elaborate architecture of segregation,” Gordon explained.
Over the years, the courts began prohibiting such blatant discrimination. Based on the ruling in Buchanan v. Warley in 1917, the Supreme Court would no longer enforce racial zoning.
But instead of ending residential segregation, cities began partnering with private companies to create race-restrictive deed agreements. “The developer would make a series of rules: Your house has to be this far back from the street and you can never sell to an African American,” he said.
Recently, Gordon and his students combed through old county records in Johnson County looking for such agreements.
“We found a whole lot of them, even though there were no African Americans living in Iowa City at the time,” he said. “And not necessarily the most exclusive or expensive neighborhoods, but little pockets of white working-class housing.”
By the time the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and was expanded in ’68 to include protection against housing discrimination, the legacy of white-only deeds had cemented the racist idea that selling or renting to Black or Brown families hurt property value.
“You repeat something like that often enough, you make it an article of professional wisdom, and people start to believe it,” he said.
Goodbye, Good Jobs
Employment opportunities — including union jobs, which allowed Black workers to use collective bargaining to protect themselves against discrimination — were initially what drew African Americans to the Midwest. But in the second half of the 20th century, just as the Black population began to see gains with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, good factory jobs began to dry up due to globalization and lower-wage competitors in the South.
From 1974 to 2016, Gordon found that the Midwest lost more than 2.5 million manufacturing jobs, a drop of more than 40 percent. Since the ’80s, the Midwest has lost over 70 percent of its membership in manufacturing unions.
Taken together, residential segregation and the loss of economic opportunity have hit the Midwest’s Black population the hardest.
“Across almost any sort of educational or economic or social measure, the disparity between Black and white Americans is starker in the upper Midwest than it is anywhere else in the country,” according to Gordon.
Ten Midwestern states have the worst disparities between Black and white unemployment rates in the U.S. All but three of the 12 Midwestern states fall into the bottom third for rates of college graduation.
In the U.S., the gap between Black and white home ownership is wider than it was in 1900, at about 72 percent for whites and 42 percent for Black Americans. In the Midwest the gap is even worse, with half of the states in the Midwest having the largest gaps between Black and white home ownership.
Wages are lower for Black workers than in any other census region.
In the U.S., African American adults are imprisoned at five times the rate of white Americans. All Midwestern states have higher rates of incarceration for Black adults to white adults than on the national level. In Iowa and Minnesota, Black men are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men.
Nationally, the Black median household income is just over $38,000; in every Midwestern state it is below $36,000.
Residential segregation has a well-documented history of harmful effects on the communities it excludes, leading to segregated schools and low-quality education. Poor neighborhoods also suffer from lack of private services, from grocery stores to hospitals. Without private businesses in the neighborhood, there are also fewer job opportunities.
“Everything begins to fit together in this interlocking system of concentrated disadvantage,” Gordon said.
The Only Black Man in Town
Zone Cashus was the only Black man in Batavia, a tiny Iowa town of 500 hemmed in by rows of corn and with a City Hall building located in a converted garage. Two years ago, Zone opened the only restaurant in town, Cashus Italian Cuisine.
“The town doesn’t support me,” he said. “People right across the street go to the BP gas station and buy a $6 burger, but won’t buy my fresh $3 burger. The mayor of the town has not been in my restaurant and I’ve been here almost two years. They want to see me fail.”
Vuda Lynn Herman, a longtime Batavian, said she wasn’t surprised by the lack of support from the town.
“I didn’t think he was going to have a snowball’s chance in hell,” she said. “It’s a prejudiced area.”
Vuda said in the 25 years she’s lived in Batavia, she’d only ever met one other Black family. She’d also seen restaurants come and go from the space Zone’s business occupied.
“When white people opened it up, the town came out,” she said. “They didn’t do that with him. And I felt like it was partially because he was Black.”
The first summer Zone was open, he had to ask a woman to leave his restaurant after she asked a waitress why she was working for a Black man.
“She basically went in my restrooms and just peed all over my walls and on the floor,” Zone said. “It was a bad experience.”
In November, Zone closed down his restaurant in Batavia for good. He’s reopened in Burlington, a bigger city a couple of hours away, where he’s hoping for better luck.
Zone grew up in Chicago, but had never felt so singled out for being Black as he did in small-town Iowa. What Zone experienced was hypervisibility, a common problem in Iowa. Around 90 percent of the Midwest’s Black population is clustered in big cities. Gordon reports that of the 1,055 counties in the Midwest, nearly two-thirds are over 95 percent white. If you’re Black and find yourself living in a smaller city in the Midwest, that means you’re likely surrounded solely by white people.
“That leads to a different pattern of discrimination,” he said, playing out in school discipline, incarceration, police stops and unemployment.
Righting Past Wrongs
The racial inequality we see today is deeply entrenched, and it’s not going to go away without a serious and concerted effort on a policy level, Gordon said.
His policy recommendations are two-fold. The first is to “raise the floor for everyone,” he said. Examples include raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 and Medicare for all. “That would make a big difference for everyone, but it would make a bigger difference for those at the bottom of the labor market,” Gordon said.
Gordon also recommends targeted policies, including strengthening enforcement of civil rights laws to protect workers from employer discrimination. We need to spend money in the neighborhoods “that have been so much left in the dust by a century of policy.”
It’s going to take a lot more than people being nicer to solve these problems. But making changes on a personal level is a good place to start, Dr. Tameka Cage Conley pointed out.
After living in the Midwest for years, Cage Conley said she’s close friends with white people who she knows want to be her ally.
“Sometimes people who really are our white allies, they really want to help. They want to figure out, ‘How do I show you that I’m not like this? How do I show you that you mean something to me?” she reflected. “And so my statement then becomes, ‘If you love me, give your hands over to the struggle of dismantling the beast of white supremacy limb by limb.”
Donna Cleveland is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s journalism masters program and is the host and producer of Thread the Needle, an indie feminist podcast. This article was adapted from a recent episode titled “The Only Black Man in Town.” This article was originally published in Little Village issue 290.