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What It Means To Be Black In Iowa

By Travel Noire

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When Bryan Shaw tells people he lives in Iowa, the first question that comes to mind for many is “Oh, there’s black people in Ohio?”

“Actually, it’s Iowa,” is how Bryan typically replies before the person admires how he’s living in a state primarily known for its potatoes.

“Telling people I’m from Iowa comes with also explaining to people where Iowa is situated geographically in the country,” he stated, jokingly.

Idaho, located in the western part of the country, is known for its potatoes and Ohio, a state commonly referred to as the “heart of it all” is in the Midwest.

Iowa, on the other hand, is known for being the nation’s first caucus state and for its corn.

Besides producing a large portion of the nation’s food supply,  Bryan believes that it’s likely that people confuse the states because phonetically they sound similar and even though they are hundreds of miles apart, they all have something else in common: they are considered some of the least diverse states in the country, as reported in Wallet Hub.


Demographics Of Blacks In Iowa

Throughout Iowa, African-Americans comprise 3.8 percent of the state’s population, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That number is significantly lower compared to national statistics that show African-Americans make up at least 13.2 percent of the nation’s population.

In the state’s capital of Des Moines, however, 10 percent of the population identifies as black, which aligns more with the national demographics.

“I don’t think there is much diversity in Iowa, but I would like it to be,” said Gus Agbortoko. “I moved here from a suburb of Chicago where there was diversity in food, people, and culture, just among blacks alone.  Here, there’s barely a grocery store that sells my native foods from West Africa.”

The state of Iowa is becoming more popular for black people. A recent report from the State Data Center of Iowa revealed that the city’s black population had increased by more than 75,000 since 1980 when African-Americans only accounted for 1.4 percent of the state’s total population.

By 2050, the projected African-American population in Iowa is expected to climb to 284,663, where they will account for 8.3 percent of the state’s population.

Despite the anticipated growth in Iowa, income disparity remains a major issue for African-Americans in the state.

Disparities in socioeconomic measures exist to some degree nationwide,  however, in certain cities, gaps in outcomes along racial lines are chasmic, according to the Worst Cities For Black Americans report from 24/7 Wall Street.

The cities on the list are largely concentrated in the Midwest, and topping the list is Waterloo-Cedar Falls in Iowa.

The black population is approximately 12,000 (7 percent) in Waterloo and the median income is $25,897, 46 percent of which is white income.

Black unemployment is at 23 percent compared to 4 percent of whites and black homeownership is 32 percent compared to 73 percent for whites.

“No U.S. metro area has larger social and economic disparities along racial lines than Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa,” analysts from the report state. “Like many U.S. cities with high economic and social inequality, Waterloo residents have struggled with several major incidents that have sparked racial tension in the area in recent years. In 2012, for example, a white police officer shot and killed a fleeing black suspect, and was later exonerated by a grand jury.”

What It Means To Be Black In Iowa

Wylliam Smith is a University of Iowa graduate and currently works as a freelance writer.  After moving to the Hawkeye State from Grand Rapids for school, he said he realized that Iowa is the kind of place where you may have to correct people’s misconceptions about African Americans.

“I had a roommate, very sweet and kind, he’s actually one of my friends here but he never met a black person before me,”Wylliam stated. “The only thing he knew was what he saw on TV. He was astonished when I didn’t play basketball, and he was shocked that I didn’t like watermelon as if was the best thing in the world.”

In his own experiences, Wylliam said that blatant racism isn’t limited to other parts of the country and happens in Iowa as well.

“There have been instances where clerks have followed me around the store and I was walking home once when someone yelled out ‘KKK for life.'”

Regarding black culture in Iowa, Wylliam said you can find it, especially near the universities.

“It’s here you just have to find it.  It’s very reminiscent since a lot of people are from the suburbs and not Iowa,” said Wylliam. “A lot of times, I go to the Afro House at the University of Iowa, which is like the university’s safe place.  For some people from Iowa, it’s also a chance to see how other black communities from outside Iowa works.”

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