The Deeper Racism in Iowa: Beneath the White Obama Craze
by Paul Street
"Much of his white support was premised on Obama being a
‘good,' that is non-threatening, middle-class, academic-friendly, and ‘not-too
The predominantly white and heavily Democratic university
town of Iowa City is in many ways ground zero for the pivotal white racial
crossover aspect of the Barack Obama phenomenon.
The city's many white and highly educated middle class
liberals were excited and proud to vote - well, Caucus - in large numbers for
the supposed great "progressive" Barack Obama last January 3.rd Along with droves of star-struck white
University of Iowa students, they turned out in the tens of thousands for
Obama's two main speaking events there last year, responding to Obama's vapid
call for "change" with wild and prolonged applause. They provided the shock
troops for an Obama tsunami that flooded Caucus gatherings in schools and
community centers across town, helping lead many white citizens and commentators
to chant and perhaps even believe that "race doesn't matter."
When asked about their
reasons for choosing Obama over other candidates to his left, including Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and
(more towards the center but still to Obama's portside) John Edwards, many Iowa
City and University of Iowa liberals cited the fact that Obama is black and the
need to make a statement against racial prejudice by supporting him. Obama was
linked in many Iowa City liberals' minds to a rejection of racism.
Racial Dress Codes and Blackface Parties
You'll have to excuse Vernon Jackson and Ryan Thomas if
they're less than impressed.
Jackson, 22, came to town from Orlando, Florida on a
University of Iowa (UI) football scholarship in the fall of 2005. After two years
living in the segregated dormitory to which the university assigns its
predominantly black football players, Jackson's athletic career was ended by an
injury before the beginning of the 2007 season.
He became the head of the university's Black Student Union
(BSU) and ran (unsuccessfully) for the presidency of the university's student
government. He was also involved in the
University of Iowa Students for Obama chapter.
Along the way, he became a courageous opponent and target of
racial bias in a town and state that might be ready to vote for Obama but seems
indifferent to routine racial oppression in the more intimate structures
of its daily life.
started when Jackson led protests against racist shenanigans at the city's
downtown "Brothers Bar and Grill." In late October of 2007, the bar's Web site
posted a picture depicting three white bar patrons wearing Chicago Bulls
jerseys, two of them in blackface. A
second picture showed another patron, also wearing blackface, clothed in a
ruffled, white satin shirt and donning a wide-brimmed zebra hat."
"Iowa might be ready to vote for Obama but seems
indifferent to routine racial oppression."
Like other downtown bars in Iowa City, "Brothers" employs a
heavily racialized dress code. The code bans baggy clothes, "flat-brimmed
hats," "wave-caps/headbands," "bandanas," "athletics jerseys (except collared
jerseys," and "exposed men's underwear." It mandates that hats must be worn
either straight-forward or backwards and that all loose neck jewelry must be
The dress code is well understood to be all about keeping
black males out of the city's bars, where frequently drunken white male and
female students - the latter often quite scantily clad - predominate. I have personally witnessed barely attired
white University of Iowa students walking from tavern to tavern as part of a
"lingerie bar crawl."
White kids dressed for a taping of "Girls Gone Wild" (whose
bus has appeared in the city's downtown district more than once) or an S&M
show? No problem.
Black guys wearing baggy pants and/or bandanas? Send the
bouncers and call the cops.
Anthony Battaglia, a white UI sophomore, notes that the
dress code seems to be enforced in a racially selective way when he and Jackson
hit the bars together: "We've been at one bar, and he will be kicked out
for wearing a do-rag, but we'll go to another bar and I will wear it, and as a
white guy, I get in," Battaglia reports. "Then we switch, and he gets
kicked out again."
The dress code remains, but Jackson and the BSU pressured
"Brothers" to remove the offensive photographs from the bar's Web site. There have been no subsequent reports of
white patrons donning blackface and grossly mocking black dialect and dress.
Three Arrests in Four Months for a Black Student Leader
Jackson has been rewarded with three arrests in less than
four months. The first came on the
night of January 21, eighteen days after masses of Iowa City and
University of Iowa residents, students, and faculty caucused for Obama. It occurred when Jackson became embroiled
with a bouncer - a military-trained "personal security expert" - who attacked
him for allegedly violating the local "3rd Base Sports Bar's"
racially biased dress code.
Jackson was charged, absurdly, with assault. The charge was
recently dropped after 25 student protesters gathered outside the local county
The second arrest came in late April, when Jackson was
hauled off to jail for "fourth degree theft" - punishable by up to one year in
jail - and failing to appear at court for a pre-trial hearing on the previous
charge. He was held in the city's
Johnson County Jail on the exorbitant bond of $3500. Protestors have recently secured a promise from the authorities
to return this sum.
The theft charges stemmed from Jackson's admitted failure to
promptly return two bullhorns rented from a local retailer on February 25.th The bullhorns were employed in his student
government campaign. As Jackson tried
to secure their return from a friend who mistakenly took them to Chicago, the
retailer filed theft charges, which it dropped once Jackson's friends and
allies supplied the bail money. The bullhorns are valued at $250.
The "failure to appear" charge was bogus since the pre-trial
hearing was attended by his attorney.
"Witnesses have no idea
why Jackson was singled out for arrest."
The third arrest was for "public intoxication and disorderly
conduct" and took place on May 3rd.
It occurred at a black and Latino "Step Team" gathering in the UI
student union. Like all black and Latino events on campus, the venue was
closely watched by a large number of white police officers. Witnesses have no
idea why Jackson was singled out for arrest.
Reporting his latest entanglement with the criminal justice
system, the campus newspaper The Daily
Iowan wrote that "a former UI Student Government presidential candidate was
arrested May 3 for public intoxication, racking up four charges within three
days." Daily Iowan reporter Clara Hogan failed to note that the bullhorn
and "failure to appear" charges had both been dropped by the time she went to
Has Jackson been targeted because of his activism? The
respectful and soft-spoken former defensive tackle - far from anything like the
wild-eyed bar fighter suggested in the student paper - isn't sure. While he
tends to think his difficulties have mainly reflected the standard racial
biases experienced by other black students in Iowa City, he finds it
interesting that "they never arrested me when I was on the football team," before
he became an activist. He also notes
that the white "security" personnel who attacked him at the 3rd Base
Bar made references to him as the leader of the protests against Brothers Bar
and Grill's racist conduct and code.
"2 Dead Niggers"
Jackson's issues with local police, retailers, and reporters
are hardly the only or the worst examples of the racial bias that lives in Iowa
City and the state of Iowa.
Several weeks ago, a black man was brutally beaten by four
white students in Iowa City's downtown bar and restaurant district. He had to be taken away in an ambulance.
The incident received no coverage in "Barack Obama's
favorite newspaper" (the source of many pro-Obama editorials and letters quoted
by the Obama campaign to prove its "transcendence" of race), the Daily Iowan.
University of Iowa student Ryan Thomas and his roommate
Justin Talley woke up one morning last March
to see the following written on the front door of their unit in an Iowa
City apartment complex:
"2 dead niggers" "Hang u coons." "Fuckin
These words were written large in black print next to a picture of two stick
figures being lynched.
"Nice," a white police officer said upon viewing this grisly
statement of venomous racial hatred.
Commenting on the
Daily Iowan's story on this little bit of "criminal mischief" (as the Iowa
City Police Department categorized the racial hate crime committed against
Thomas and Talley), a former University of Iowa BSU president ("Royce K") noted
that "these types of things happen ALL the
time, but don't commonly get reported. Between professors, students, and
townies, I have been on the same end of the racial sledgehammer many times."
A different local commenter
observed that "this is the kind of latent racism that's been prevalent in Iowa
for at least the 39 years I've seen it. There may be no Klan or reverse
discrimination lawsuits but racism is as prevalent in Iowa as it is in about 40
other states outside the South." Actually, the Klan has operated in Iowa on and
off, especially in the notoriously racist town of Dubuque.
"These types of things happen
ALL the time."
White racist language and threats are increasingly common in
Iowa City, especially on its east side, where the presence of a small but
growing poor black population is "bothering" liberal bourgeois and heavily
academic whites and "causing conflict" in the public schools.
Black middle-class professionals with the university often
report being denied reasonably prompt and polite service in local restaurants
Black and Latino/a UI students note that white students are
reluctant to share elevators and dining tables with them. White students commonly voice stereotyped
and negative ideas of non-white culture and experience - a reflection in part
of the fact that they tend to come from lily white jurisdictions from across 93
percent Caucasian Iowa and from highly
segregated white suburbs outside Chicago.
For what it's worth, I observe black motorists and
passengers in at least half the cars I see pulled over by the police in Iowa
City - an interesting thing to note in a town that is just 4 percent African
First in the Nation
Blacks would seem to be under special surveillance in
Iowa. The state might have been the
first in the nation to support Obama on the road to the White House but it is
also first in the rate of racially disparate mass incarceration. According to a recent Sentencing Project
report, Iowa locks up African Americans at 13.6 times the frequency that it
imprisons whites, the worst record in the nation.
This is more than twice the terrible national black-white
race disparity (5.6) in incarceration rates. Mississippi and Alabama both lock
up blacks at 3.5 times the rate at which they imprison whites, making them look
like bastions of progressivism compared
lily-white northern states like Iowa (13.6), Wisconsin (10.6), and South
"Iowa locks up African Americans at 13.6 times the
frequency that it imprisons whites."
An antiwar activists from Des Moines told me last year that
"if you want to see blacks in Iowa, just join us on a civil disobedience act
and spend a night in jail." Concentrated mainly in segregated sections of Des
Moines, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Davenport - these 4 towns together account
for nearly two thirds (63 percent) of the black
population in a state that is home to more than 950 incorporated towns
and cities - blacks make up just 2.3 of the state's total population but
more than 15 percent of the state's
Forty percent of Iowa's juvenile
detention inmates are black even though blacks comprise just 5 percent of
the state's public school students.
Middle-Class Obamists Missing in Action
Interestingly enough, you don't see many if any white
liberal Iowa City Obama supporters involved in efforts to fight and overcome
routine institutional racism and racial harassment in their city and
Given the purported anti-racism behind their support for
Obama, they seem remarkably indifferent to - and ignorant of - Iowa's status as
the nation's leader in disproportionate black imprisonment.
Some of the black and liberal students here find this a
paradox. I have a different
perspective. Two days before the heavily Caucasian Iowa caucus, one forthcoming
and self-critical caucus-goer and neighbor told me something I'd been
suspecting for some time. Obama, he said, was "a way for liberal and moderate
whites around here to pat themselves on the back for not being too prejudiced
to vote for a black guy." But it was
all premised, he agreed, on Obama being a "good," that is non-threatening,
middle-class, academic-friendly, and "not-too fiery black" - one who
seemed unlikely to confront institutional white supremacy in any way more
meaningful than attaining higher office. Like the racially accomodationist,
white-friendly media mogul and mass Obama marketer Oprah Winfrey (who came
through Iowa to stump for him a few weeks before that state's critical Caucus),
Obama capitalized on middle class whites' rejection of openly bigoted
"level-one" (state-of-mind) racism only because he reassured them he would
honor their refusal to acknowledge and confront the continuing power of deeper,
"level two" (state-of-being) - societal and institutional - racism in American
life. I have spoken with local middle-class whites for whom loving the "good"
(bourgeois) black Obama is the other side of the coin of hating the "bad" and
"underclass" blacks who are becoming more evident in Iowa City.
The town's white liberals don't seem interested in tackling
the deeper institutional racism that lives on beneath the surface while they
congratulate themselves for being willing to back a certain non-threatening
kind of black candidate. They certainly don't want to look closely at the
unpleasant picture of how racial and class oppression produce pain and inequality in their own schools,
neighborhoods, and community. They respond very well to what Black
Agenda Report's Glen Ford has identified as Obama's "strategy to win the
White House" by "run[ning] a ‘race-neutral' campaign in a society that is
anything but neutral on race." As Ford notes, "the very premise - that race
neutrality is possible in a nation built on white supremacy - demand[s] the systematic
practice of the most profound race-factual denial, which is ultimately
indistinguishable from rank dishonesty."
"Loving the ‘good' (bourgeois) black Obama is the other
side of the coin of hating the ‘bad' and ‘underclass' blacks."
At the same time, many of even my more progressive white
neighbors have fallen deeply into what Left sociologist Charles Derber has
identified as "The Election Trap" - the "linking of power and change with
"The Election Trap," Derber argues, "inflates and distorts
the role of the horse race in democratic politics. It makes near-term elections the primary object of political
struggle and electoral victory the criterion for measuring power." It forgets that "the main catalysts for
regime change in America have not been parties glued to the next election, but
social movements that operate on the scale of decades rather than two and four
year election cycles" .
For what it's worth, a similar dichotomy exists on the Iraq
War when it comes to the liberal white Obamanists of Iowa City. They'll tell you they support Obama because
he was "against the war from the beginning" - a highly
inaccurate judgment - but you won't see them at many if any of them at
gatherings and speaking events called by the local antiwar movement.
People who were serious about ending racism or for that
matter the racist and imperial occupation of Iraq would expand their engagement
beyond the easy and superficial act of
voting for a false savior like the heavily
corporate, imperial, and "race-neutral" Obama . They would become involved in the messier
but ultimately more gratifying and substantive, day-to-day work of building,
re-building, and expanding social movements and creating a more democratic and
responsive political culture capable of pushing politicians and elected
officials in a more progressive direction on critical questions of race,
empire, class, ecology and more.
Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of
Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO:
Paradigm); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman &
Littlefield, 2007); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil
Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005), and The Vicious Circle: Race,
Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago, IL:
Chicago Urban League, 2002). Street's next book, Barack Obama and the Future of
American Politics (2008), will be released this summer.
Derber, Hidden Power: What You Need to
Save Our Democracy (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005), pp.6-8.
2. See Pam Martens, "Obama's Money Cartel," CounterPunch (February 23, 2008) read
online at http://zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16601;
Pam Martens, "The Obama Bubble: Why Wall Street Needs a Presidential Brand," Black Agenda Report (March 5, 2008);
Matt Gonzales, "The Obama Craze: Count Me Out," BeyondChron: San Francisco's Online Daily (February
28 2008) read online at www.beyondchron.org/articles/index.php?itemid=5413#more;
Doug Henwood, "Would You
like Change With That?" Left Business
Observer, no.117 (March 2008); David Moberg, "Obamanomics," In These Times (April 2008); Chris
Hedges, "Corporate America Hearts Obama," AlterNet (April 30, 2008), read at www.alternet.org/election08/83890/