Report: Structural racism evident in Polk County
Racial disparities are creating a “tale of two cities” in Des Moines and Polk County, according to a yearlong study on the status of black residents.
The State of Black Polk County report unveiled Thursday was spearheaded by The Directors Council, a local nonprofit.
“On nearly every measure, Black Polk County falls short of the wider community," according to the report.
Teree Caldwell-Johnson, chairwoman of The Directors Council and a Des Moines school board member, said the report is the first to lay out disparities that black people face in Iowa's most populated county.
“I think this will really lift up, from a qualitative and quantitative perspective, the significant challenges we face as a community,” she said.
“Structural racism” has contributed to a county where black households’ median income was $26,725 in 2014, about 45 percent of the countywide $59,844 median income that year, the report states.
Iowa had the highest unemployment rate for African Americans of any state — 14.8 percent — in 2015, when the overall nationwide rate averaged 5.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At 16.9 percent, Polk County’s unemployment rate for African Americans is higher than the state’s, and much higher than the county’s 3.5 percent, the report states.
The report was created by researchers from the State Public Policy Group, who analyzed government data and conducted small group and individual interviews with residents.
It lists other disparities: Black residents in Polk County are less likely to have a bank account or own a home than the population as a whole. They are more likely to be denied a loan.
There has been little increase since the 1960s in the number of black Iowans elected to public positions in the county, the report states.
A metrowide review found only four elected officials who are African American: two in the Iowa House of Representatives and two on the Des Moines school board. There are no black mayors, city council members, state senators or county supervisors, it states.
Community members interviewed described a lack of black role models in the business community. Acknowledging that its list may be incomplete, the report found only 23 small businesses owned by Africans or African Americans.
“Despite undeniable progress, black people living in the United States are not yet equal to white people,” the report states.
The work was funded through the Northwest Area Foundation’s African American Financial Capability Initiative. Support also came from the NAACP and Corporation for Enterprise Development, the report states.
Similar Northwest Area Foundation initiatives are taking place in Seattle, Denver, Portland, Ore., Tacoma, Wash., and Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Minn.
Arlinda McKeen of the State Public Policy Group said the body of work voiced residents’ concerns and provided a platform for next steps to be taken.
“We all know that if we are going to make a difference, it’s going to take common goals … collaboration and a certain degree of stubbornness,” McKeen said.
The full report will be posted at TDCdsm.org.