Archive for April 19th, 2009

Do we really need to discuss race in 2009? Isn’t it time, with a man of African heritage in the White House, that we can lay this issue to rest?

I wish. Without question, the strides this nation has made on race have been huge. And last year’s election did topple a major barrier. The conversation has changed, but it’s not over yet.

If you’d like to continue that conversation, join The Gazette’s panel discussion on race this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. I will moderate a discussion with at least four community leaders about how race remains an issue in our community and our country.

The discussion is part of Linn Area Reads, a program of the Metro Library Network. The program has encouraged people in the community to read two books that explore themes of bigotry: Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, set in a Colorado town outside a World War II relocation camp for American citizens of Japanese descent; and Harper Lee‘s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, set in Alabama in the 1930s.

The institutionalized barriers described in those books have disappeared today, but we still have plenty of bigotry. Though debates over immigration and same-sex marriage involve valid policy issues, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find some ugly examples of hatred toward people who are different. And while we didn’t herd Americans of Arab heritage into relocation camps after 9/11, we saw disturbing examples of individual violence and discrimination.

Certainly Barack Obama’s election as president represented a huge symbolic milestone in our nation’s struggle with racism. And the facts that his first victory came in Iowa and that he easily carried this state that’s 93 percent white showed that voters are increasingly looking past race. While I received many letters and emails with subtle or blatant racial overtones during and since that campaign, the simple fact is that those voices of hatred and ignorance got drowned out in the election.

But triumph at the top levels of society doesn’t translate into equality everywhere. In Iowa, the median household income for white families is nearly twice as high as it is for black families. The percentage of people in poverty is more than three times as high for blacks. Whether you examine health, family, education, crime, housing or economics, statistics continue to show a discouraging difference between life for black and white Americans.

The disparity starts at birth. Black babies in Iowa are more than twice as likely as white babies to be born to an unwed mother or a teen mother or to die in infancy.

Native Americans and Hispanics also lag far behind in most measures. Among racial minorities, only Asian Americans, the group featured in Tallgrass, now live a life that’s statistically comparable to the lives of whites.

Yes, while we celebrate progress, we still have plenty to discuss about race in our country and our community.

In Thursday’s panel discussion, Derek Buckaloo, chairman of the Department of History at Coe College, will start with an overview of race in America and why we have such a tough time with the issue.

Hazel Pegues, executive director of Diversity Focus, will discuss Iowa’s increasing diversity and the  challenges and opportunities it presents.

Karen Brown, director of diversity at Rockwell Collins, will discuss diversity issues in the workplace.

Christian Fong, chairman of the Next Generation Commission and head of AEGON’s real estate capital markets division, will offer a young professional’s views on race and diversity.

Dale Todd, former City Council member, will offer observations about race and diversity in Cedar Rapids and, in particular, his experiences in leading the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association and his service in city leadership.

After opening presentations, I will ask the panelists questions. I’d like your help in choosing questions to ask. Through emails, letters, phone calls or comments on my blog, I invite you to send questions about racial issues. Please include your name, daytime phone number and your own racial or ethnic heritage with your questions. I will use some of them in Thursday’s program.


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