Daily Iowan Editorial: Inequality in Johnson County

[Source: “Editorial: Inequality in Johnson County,” The Daily Iowan, 25 July 2013, by the Daily Iowan Editorial Board]

A new report by a Johnson County task force titled “Racial Equity in Iowa City and Johnson County” had some very disappointing findings.

While Johnson County may rightly boast of being a vibrant community that offers a high quality of life, there are still significant and troubling racial disparities that exist in our community in education, juvenile justice, adult criminal justice, economic well-being, housing, and representation in community leadership. The report reveals that children and adults in the greater Iowa City area experience different opportunities and quality of life depending on the color of their skin or ethnic background.

The existing disparity is deplorable because it unjustly limits opportunities for minorities.

Therefore, we, as a community, should hasten to face the challenges and devise strategies in order to achieve racial equity.

The K-12 student population is more diverse than is the community at large, with minority enrollment of approximately 33 percent in 2012–13. However, statewide data show significant racial disparities in academic achievement, with African-American and Latino students graduating at lower rates than white and Asian-American students. There are also far more African-American and Latino students facing suspensions and police referrals and in special-education programs compared with Asian and white students.

In order to ensure that African-American and Latino students are graduating at higher rates and not experiencing the lifelong disadvantages associated with not graduating, the report suggests that citizens of Johnson County encourage the Iowa City School District to continue and strengthen its efforts to address racial disparities in K-12 education.

Associated with low graduation rates and criminal recidivism, there is juvenile detention. In one national study, only 12 percent of those who had served time in a juvenile-detention center went on to graduate from high school or earn a GED.

Black and Latino youths in Johnson County are arrested and detained at considerably higher rates than white youths. In fact, Johnson County led the state in the racial disparity of juvenile arrests, with black youths being nine times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.

To address the disparity in juvenile detention, the report suggests community input into law-enforcement practices, policies, and programs through community policing and accessible complaint procedures.

Johnson County is no exception to the national phenomenon of racial disparities in adult criminal justice, either.

African-American residents make up 4.8 percent of Iowa City’s population but accounted for 28 percent of non-traffic arrests by Iowa City police in 2011, and black inmates made up 42 percent of the Johnson County Jail’s average daily population in 2010. While blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in prison populations, they are significantly underrepresented in policing. Black and Latino officers together made up only 6 percent of Iowa City’s police force in 2011.

The report stresses the importance of availability of reliable data to monitor racial disparities. To do so, the report suggests establishing uniform data collection and reporting on race and ethnicity for Johnson County’s several law-enforcement agencies. Easy public access to data on law-enforcement contacts, traffic stops, arrests, and incarceration in Johnson County is also recommended.

As for economic well-being, only 16 percent of white households in Johnson County have poverty-level incomes compared with about 40 percent of African American and 26 percent of Asian families.

Johnson County’s black, Latino, and multiracial residents also experience significantly higher unemployment than people of other ethnicities.

Identifying the barriers to people of color in income and employment is important in addressing the situation.

It is clear that significant disparities exist in Johnson County, and reversing these trends will require major changes to the county’s public institutions. Such changes will depend not only on policy changes but also on an increase in racial and ethnic diversity among elected leaders and in public institutions.

The county and its residents alike must act to improve equality.

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