Iowa Has a Racism Problem That It Needs to Confront

Steve King may be the public face of racism for the state, but he's a symptom of a much wider problem that residents have been all too happy to ignore under the cover of "Iowa nice"

Confederate flag patches spotted by the Informer for sale at an Ames Bike Night event hosted by the Main Street Cultural District in the summer of 2016.

By now, exasperated Iowans are all too familiar with the common coastal perception of our state as a dull-witted, racist backwater, thanks primarily these days to Steve King, whose penchant for sordid conspiracy theories (e.g., birtherism, white genocide) and apparent inability to avoid capturing national headlines in his repeated embrace of white nationalists (despite his ludicrous and easily disproven denials) show no signs of abating.

Instead of bemoaning how this perception is unfair — a result of the undue influence of one fringe lawmaker who chanced his way into a sure-thing GOP congressional seat via a 2002 nominating convention — residents of his 4th District and elsewhere across the state alike ought to pause and consider whether anything’s being done to adequately address it.

The sudden, post-election condemnations of the sort of rhetoric that King’s been parroting for years from people like Gov. Kim Reynolds, who just days earlier had no issues keeping him as an honorary co-chair of her 2018 gubernatorial campaign, reek of nauseating political convenience. State Sen. Randy Feenstra, so far the most prominent of the congressman’s early 2020 primary challengers, has done essentially nothing, aside from not retweeting neo-Nazis and white nationalists, to differentiate himself from the incumbent, even sharing similar factually inaccurate memes on social media to score cheap points mocking democratic socialists. In announcing his campaign, Feenstra didn’t even address King’s racist rhetoric except to vaguely criticize his “caustic nature.” Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders, another potential primary challenger who is no fan of the congressman, candidly told the Informer a few days after votes were tallied that he likely would have lost re-election had he publicly condemned King’s actions then. If he’s spoken out since, there’s scant evidence.

In recent, defiant appearances, King has made a laughable habit of claiming he’s a supporter of the Fourth Estate, contrasting the liberal, fake-news media of the coasts with newspapers in his district whose editors and publishers pen sorry columns downplaying his bigotry, when they don’t ignore it entirely. Randy Cauthron, managing editor of the Spencer Daily Reporter, for example, boasted last October that King had cited his paper as an example of unbiased reporting. “I’m not sure there is a higher compliment a newspaper can receive,” he crowed. After the election, Cauthron followed up with a column protesting the “continued characterization” of King “as a racist,” praising his supposed knowledge of international politics and climate change (whose scientific consensus he rejects). The article included an endorsement letter from Antonia Okafor, a black gun-rights activist, titled, “How I know Congressman Steve King is NOT a racist.” In January, after King was quoted in the New York Times defending white supremacy, Okafor withdrew her endorsement, saying, “I can no longer accept his excuses as to why something was again ‘taken out of context,’ an excuse he has given me multiple times now.”

Antonia Okafor, a conservative gun-rights activist and former Steve King ally, pictured last fall at the congressman’s annual pheasant hunt. Photo: @SteveKingIA/Twitter

But the problem extends far beyond just King and his direct enablers. Western Iowa is more diverse now than it was when the congressman grew up there in the ‘50s and ‘60s, largely thanks to an influx of refugees and meatpacking laborers, but the 4th District is still 92 percent white. It’s where a cheerleader majoring in criminal justice at Buena Vista University was forced off the squad in 2017 for kneeling during the national anthem and later woke up to find “nigger” scrawled across her dorm room door. It’s where a radio broadcaster and switchboard operator in Forest City were fired the same month after they were caught on mic mocking the “Español people” playing for rival high school basketball team Eagle Grove. “As Trump would say, go back to where you came from,” said the broadcaster, Orin Harris. “Some would say that,” replied the operator, Holly Jane Kusserow-Smidt. “Some days, I feel like that, too.”

The problem isn’t contained to western Iowa, either. In central Story County, which regrettably now belongs to the eastern side of King’s district, there have been numerous telling examples in the recent past. A decade ago in Ames, before redistricting put us in the 4th, there was the so-called “Chicago problem,” in which an influx of low-income, primarily black Chicagoans took advantage of new government-subsidized housing opportunities here. A correlating flare-up of violent crime — some of it shocking — provoked latent racial tensions and led one resident to begin distributing white nationalist literature.

Ames is a relatively diverse bookend of the district, home to Iowa State University, which has been notably tone-deaf in its response to incidents of discrimination on campus. A few days after white supremacist posters placed around campus in October 2016 drew national media attention, Jamie Pollard, the university’s athletics director, appeared on the Cyclones’ sports television network dressed for Halloween as Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty patriarch who three years prior was rebuked by the NAACP after suggesting in a GQ magazine interview that blacks were happier before they had civil rights. The next month, addressing the racist posters in a pre-recorded video sent to students and faculty on election eve, then-President Steven Leath bizarrely suggested that they “may be factually described as white heritage posters rather than white supremacy posters, because they do not legally violate the First Amendment.” Roger Underwood, an ISU Foundation board member and local agribusiness magnate who’s given over a million dollars to the university and led the search committee that recruited Leath, deleted his social media accounts after our report on his posts that were at odds with promises made by Leath’s successor, Wendy Wintersteen, to better address the university’s diversity problems, including several criticizing NFL athletes for protesting racial injustice.

Anecdotally in Ames, we’ve heard from several minority residents in recent years — some ISU students, others not — who said they faced specific acts of discrimination from white residents or fellow students, or were unjustly profiled by local law enforcement. While no doubt true, to its credit, the Ames Police Department, led by Chuck Cychosz, a more cerebral chief than some of his peers, has prioritized community outreach efforts aimed in part at mitigating racial tensions. In 2016, after a black gunman murdered five cops during a Dallas Black Lives Matter protest (to which he had no apparent connection), Ames officers including Cychosz participated in a community forum hosted by the Ames Progressive Alliance focusing on local race relations. But there’s a long way to go, as evidenced in part by the stories told at the forum that echoed the anecdotes we’ve heard, civic leaders’ dismissive response to our reporting on the display of Confederate flags at a city-sponsored bike night event in 2016, and the recent resignation of Ames Middle School Principal Dan Fox over his inaction on student misconduct including racist bullying.

Cychosz’s counterparts at the Des Moines Police Department appear to be less enlightened. Last July, a black man from West Des Moines sued two officers for alleged racial profiling. Half a dozen others accused a third officer, who in one incident repeatedly questioned two black men if they had a gun or weed in their car without just cause, of the same last fall. Despite this, just two weeks later, Parizek saw fit to criticize a “Black Lives Matter” banner displayed outside the city’s Plymouth Church. At a press conference convened to provide updates on flash flooding that was attended by a Des Moines Register reporter, Parizek also criticized the banner as divisive. “Just a simple statement like one group matters more than any other is divisive,” he said, arguing it should have promoted “unity” by reading, “All Lives Matter,” in order to prevent other minority groups from feeling “marginalized.” His argument was reminiscent of those commonly made in bad faith by people seeking to delegitimize the BLM movement by mischaracterizing its message, which is that blacks specifically have long been the victims of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and that they should be treated the same as, not more favorably than, other groups.

There’s clear evidence of this systemic racism in Iowa, which for years has ranked at or near the top of a list of states with the worst racial disparities for drug arrests. It’s one of only two states to permanently bar felons from voting, a law disproportionately affecting black residents that the governor has proposed rescinding with a constitutional amendment.

In 2018, the financial website 24/7 Wall St. named the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area in northeastern Iowa as the worst place in the entire country for black Americans to live. Although the site is a listicle content mill that often relies on dubious methodologies, the census data it used for this one was striking: an unemployment rate over five times greater than that of whites, a median income less than 50 percent of white income, a homeownership rate of 32.8 percent compared to 73.2 percent among white residents. The ranking was backed up by the experiences of black residents, among them minors who sued the city after being subjected to excessive force by white cops. It also served as a grim reminder of the death of Derrick Ambrose Jr., who was shot to death by white police officer Kyle Law after discarding a pistol as he fled the scene of a nightclub altercation. Law was cleared by a grand jury the following year, and in 2016, the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $2.5 million.

Behind the veneer of the cultural cliche “Iowa nice,” many people in the state shrug off evidence of the pervasive racism present here. They have been emboldened by unfortunate affairs such as a hoax by a former Drake University student who fabricated racist notes and placed them around campus in late 2018. Their attitudes were summed up well, although inadvertently, in recent op-eds by conservative Register columnist Joel Kurtinitis, who chalked it all up to “hypersensitive” liberals and social justice warriors intent on smearing political rivals, pedantically cherry-picking from dictionary definitions to suggest that racists are virtually nonexistent in the state. It’s far past time for Iowans similarly guilty of dismissing evidence of discrimination to challenge their beliefs and consider that the experiences of minorities here are not an invention of the media, as Kurtinitis has also suggested, merely sensationalizing mundate events to attract more readers.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.