Letter from the Editor

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Can't say 'black?'

A short time back, I did a story on Tyson Foods' policy of recruiting and transporting in new workers from Chicago to fill vacancies in the Storm Lake plant. A racial issue hadn't occurred to me - I was interested in the socio-economic impact on the community.

From what I could gather, the rumors about being overrun with gang members like wild dogs on the street was not founded. There certainly is a valid point, though, about people being taken out of their familiar inner city environment and being dropped into an isolated rural community with a limited support system and often no transportation. There are implications for the already strained local charitable systems.

The next day, I got a call from Iowa Public Radio, where a reporter wanted to duplicate the story I had done. I declined to give up the names of my sources - I have no desire to get anyone into trouble.

So the reporter wanted to know how to find Chicago transplants of her own in Storm Lake. That's not hard - check out the plan area as a shift is ending, and some will probably be among those walking home.

But how, she asks, is she going to recognize them?

I wasn't quite sure whether to laugh at her or go all PC and dodge the question. I did hesitate.

Well, if they are black, you're probably on the right track.

I'm not sure why that sounds as bad as it does. I grew up in a black neighborhood where I was the minority. Getting along wasn't hard then, and it's not now.

I don't know if most of the Chicago newcomers are black, nor does it matter, but I do know that before Tyson started this process, you didn't see a lot of black people in Storm Lake, aside from a few well-established families, a handful of college students, and a small, recognizable faction from Sudan. Not racism, just an observation.

Last time I tried to count, we had people from at least 35 counties of ethnic origin in this small city; lots of diversity, just not a lot of that shade of it at that time.

I think that's where the stuff about "gang members roaming the streets like wild dogs" comes from. If Tyson had shipped in vanloads of Chi-town caucasions, Latinos, southeast Asians, be they saints or sinners, hardly anyone would even have noticed.

I can't say if there is any more of a crime concern than with any other slice of the mulitethnic pie. I guess we'll find out at the end of the year, as police do keep arrest records by ethnicity. The few I happen to have met who have come in from Chicago have seemed like good people to me, and seem to be happy to be here. The others I encounter in passing, to a one, always offer a greeting if you say hello to them. If they think I'm a wild dog because I'm out walking the street instead of burning $4 gas, they have the good manners not to e-mail the opinion around.

I do wish people would stop trying to speak in politically correct code, though. We can't address what we can't speak.

In those e-mails sent around, these newcomers are categorized as gang members or street currs because, let's face it, even a cop disseminating such information can't get by with saying that what they are worried about is that black people are going to come to town and walk the streets. It is practically word for word what was said of Hispanics a decade ago, and for all I know, about various groups of hungry European immigrants a century earlier. We tend to notice something new. The noticing doesn't make us racist, necessarily, just watchful.

I'm not much for code - black is black, white is white, people are people. Chicago's Chicago. The majority, at least I hope so, of any group are people just looking for a better chance.

You have to respect people who will leave behind the only circumstances they have known to work for a better opportunity for themselves and their families. It might be just a long van ride, but I suspect in many ways it is like going to a different world - one in which you may not know anyone, or be too sure of how things work in conservative rural Iowa.

I'm using the term "black" for the sake of being clear here - don't see any need to dance around it.

If African-American is the better term, fine - though most in this case are no more Africans than I am a citizen of Norway. Hopefully, sometime soon, we can all just be "American" without finding a need for an uncomfortable skin-tone qualifier.

I'm reminded of the incident not long ago when Senator Clinton's campaign people released an old picture of Senator Obama from a visit to Kenya, where someone had wrapped him up in traditional African garb. Clinton's people couldn't say a word because they knew ethnicity isn't any real kind of issue, they just put this picture out there as if to say, "Ha - you didn't know he was THAT black! Be afraid!"

The good news is that a Pew Research Center survey now shows that 94 percent of Americans say they would be no less likely to support any political candidate if he/she was black.

Oddly, in fact, they are more likely to politically discriminate against a white Catholic. About twice as many would be less likely to support a woman or a Jewish person than a black one. Even more would shy away from a Hispanic or an evangelical Christian. Almost five times more people would discriminate against a Mormon than a black, and a whopper 61 percent would be unlikley to support an atheist candidate - way higher than the 45 percent who would flinch at a Muslin candidate.

Also interestingly, when a powerful and famous black person like Obama came to town, he drew large and adoring crowds. No one that I heard suggested that he was a gang member or a dog because he is from Chicago. Everyone made a point of saying hello and welcoming him. The difference seems to be the walking streets - so maybe as struggling people work long enough to afford nice SUV's like he had - we'll get over it.

For the record, Obama was recently forced to apologize for calling someone "sweety." I was in the crowd when he did that to a Storm Lake teacher who asked him an intelligent question. Looks like we all have our little prejudices to address.