As Black History Month began, The Courier revisited a November report from 24/7 Wall St., a financial commentary site that rated the Cedar Valley as the worst place to be a black American.
That lamentable distinction came two years after a 10th-place finish — an indictment seemingly taken in stride.
The Midwest dominated the “worst” 15: six Illinois cities (Peoria, Kankakee, Decatur, Springfield, Danville and Chicago and its suburbs); Minneapolis-St. Paul; Milwaukee and Racine, Wis.; Niles-Benton Harbor, Mich., upstate New York (Rochester and Elmira); Trenton, N.J., and Fresno, Calif.
We could argue with the methodology because of some curious omissions: Rockford, Ill., with an African-American poverty rate above 40 percent; the St. Louis metro area, which admits it has “one of the highest racial-economic disparities of any major urban area in America,” and the entire Southeast with some abysmal school systems.
But we won’t deny the fundamental finding: Waterloo-Cedar Falls has had a serious racial divide for more than a century, dating back to 1910 when the railroad first recruited black strikebreakers. Indeed, segregation started with a 20-block area near the rail yards.
Some Waterloo businesses were still rejecting black customers a half-century ago. The school district was notoriously slow to accept desegregation until the 1970s, when proposed housing for blacks on the west side encountered a backlash.
And many black residents have long felt Cedar Falls was entirely off limits.
That was then, and this is now. We must endeavor to be better.
African-Americans make up 7.1 percent of the metro population — 10,600 in Waterloo (15.6 percent) and 1,140 in Cedar Falls (2.8 percent).
The metro unemployment rate for whites was 4 percent in 2017, based on U.S. Census estimates, but 19.7 percent for blacks. (It was 7 percent for blacks in the 1970s before employment plummeted at Deere and Rath Packing closed.)
Median household income was $53,689. Whites earned an average of $56,520 per household, blacks just $27,811. The income level for public energy, shelter and medical assistance was $24,192. The poverty rate was 14 percent — 12.3 percent of whites, but 32.5 percent for blacks.
More than 93 percent of whites have a high school diploma and 28 percent have a bachelor’s degree, while 80 percent of blacks graduate from high school and 16 percent have a college degree.
But even black residents with a degree have experienced frustrating job searches.
“Seeing African-Americans with degrees, including myself, and the difficulty I had in getting a job, so many people in my community feel hopeless,” said former seven-term state Rep. Deb Berry. “Many educated women have left.”
“We’ve done everything society says. We’ve gone to college,” she added. “You worked hard to get this job you had to be 10 times as good (as a white person). ... Or this (black) person has all of the qualifications, but does not get the job.”
Also, Iowa had the dubious distinction of an 11-1 ratio of incarcerated blacks to whites in 2014, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.
A decade earlier then Gov. Tom Vilsack had created a task force to study the issue, stating, “No community is better represented in the prison population than the Waterloo-Cedar Falls areas.”
Hope, though, is a huge deterrent to crime.
Kyle Roed, human resources director at CPM process equipment and automation solutions in Waterloo, is helping provide it, eliminating a prominent barrier to employment by “banning the box” on criminal history. He won’t immediately inquire about a criminal record, but the topic isn’t entirely precluded.
“Asking the question upfront is a barrier,” Roed said, adding, “We’re fighting a war for talent. And our perspective is, there’s talent out there, and they may have a criminal background.”
A temporary hire with a criminal record had struggled to find work, but was “extremely” loyal to CPM and now has a leadership role.
“I’ve done this the last three years, and the business results have been there,” Roed said. “I’ve seen significant loyalty and retention from individuals I’ve given a chance to.”
Yet the problems afflicting the Cedar Valley can’t be rectified on a piecemeal basis with businesses, institutions, civic organizations and places of worship each launching individual initiatives, as laudable as they may be.
It will take a concerted, unified undertaking that crosses all boundaries — Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Evansdale and rural Black Hawk County.
We implore Cedar Valley leaders to conduct a community-wide summit to embark on plans of action. Banish the stigma. Launch a long overdue new beginning for the betterment of all.
As Waterloo native Gwenne Berry, the University of Northern Iowa’s chief diversity officer, recently asked, “What kind of place do we want to be? Do we want to be the economic powerhouse, and what does that look like? I’ve got high hopes.”