Cedar Rapids faces a well-documented crisis of racial disparity. Like other sectors of society, our criminal justice system is proven to be disproportionately harsh toward African Americans. This reality prompts me to ask the question, how do we keep ourselves from becoming the next Ferguson? How do we right our ship before disaster strikes?
Let’s start with my first claim: our well-documented crisis of racial disparity. In 2014, the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission released a report called “The State of Equity in Cedar Rapids”. The document provides helpful—and some might say startling—data about just how tough African Americans have it in Cedar Rapids compared to White residents. It contains insights every Cedar Rapidian should read and take to heart.
As to disparity in our criminal justice system, the report states that “In 2007, a study by the Washington D.C. based Sentencing Project ranked Iowa ‘worst in the nation’ in the ratio of African Americans to Whites in prison. The study found Iowa incarcerates African Americans at a rate of 13.6 times that of Whites—more than double the national average. […] According to the ACLU, an African American person in Iowa is ‘More than 8 times as likely to be arrested for possession, than a White person, despite equal usage rates.’”
The Cedar Rapids Community School District is under federal investigation for its discipline practices, and such pressure has helped the district to begin implementing necessary changes. One small example, the district has signed on as an official partner to the newly created Center for Equity, with a commitment to hire and retain more non-White teachers.
In light of recent national tragedies, I had to ask: what about our police department? Is there a similar effort underway to hire and retain non-White officers? I spoke with Sgt. Cristy Hamblin of the Cedar Rapids Police Department, and she told me that out of about 200 officers, there are currently four African American, two Asian, and three Hispanic officers on the force (4.5% non-White). Sgt. Hamblin agreed that this is a problem and cited a few efforts the department has made to recruit more non-White officers, but also said that so far most of these have not proved successful. She believes racial disparity is a whole-community problem, and like other entities, the police department could and should do more to fix the disparity crisis. Perhaps a Center for Equity could be as helpful to regional police departments as it hopes to be for our school districts.
This year, Cedar Rapids was named an All-American City, partly due to our history of tackling tough problems like the 2008 flood with forward-thinking creativity, hard work, and a determination to succeed. It’s time for us to do the same with the crisis of racial disparity. Instead of denying we have a problem until tragedy strikes and the national spotlight turns ugly, let’s do our part now to make the city great for all its residents.
This was a guest column written for The Cedar Rapids Gazette.Like this? Click to subscribe!
Image of New York City protesters by The All-Nite Images (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons