LaTasha Massey worked hard to own her Iowa City house.
A community projects specialist for Johnson County with a master's degree in social work from the University of Iowa, she received assistance from a city-run, state-funded program to help with her down payment. Yet, despite her job and degrees, she had difficulty.
First seeking a place to rent, she ran into landlords who said they did not take Section 8 cases. How many kids do you have? she was asked, an assumption she believes they made because she is a black woman in her early 30s and was looking for housing.
-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Skyler Weilenman, a fourth-grader from Fort Dodge, shows a drawing to Charles Clayton during the AFES after-school program. The program reaches out to students of all races and economic backgrounds to help keep them engaged in their schoolwork.
At least her advanced degree, good job and, now, home ownership put her ahead of the curve for most black Iowans, and also another growing minority group in the state, Latinos.
An investigation by six news organizations that included The Messenger revealed that gaps in education, income and housing among whites, blacks and Latinos in Iowa have grown worse over the last five decades.
"With this being the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's speech, I think everybody would agree that race relations have come a very long way," Charles Clayton, executive director of Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge, said, referring to the Aug. 28 anniversary of King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech.
"But when it comes to certain things - housing, education, jobs - there's still a long way to go."
The reasons are found in a blend of institutional racism, negative stereotypes of minorities in Iowa, limited support from the state, language barriers and immigrants' lack of knowledge of U.S. culture, Iowans who deal with the disparity said in interviews. Those interviewed include black and Latino residents and leaders, social workers, officials in government and law enforcement, and community leaders.
They spoke for a special project, Iowa's Opportunity Gap, a collaboration of IowaWatch; The Messenger; The Gazette, in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City; The Hawk Eye of Burlington; the West Liberty Index; and the Colorado-based public service journalism organization I-News, which analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data from 1960 through 2010 and made them available for the project.
Iowa's census numbers show the high school graduation rate doubling for whites to a little more than nine of every 10 getting diplomas. The rate for black Iowans has almost tripled, although to only a little more than eight of every 10 graduating from high school.
The Latino rate has become dismal - half of the Latino youths were graduating from high school when the 2010 census was taken a few years after large immigration raids disrupted families and schooling in Iowa.
Little improvement is seen when it comes to owning a home. Three of every four white Iowans owns one, up slightly from 1960. Half of the state's Latinos and three of every 10 blacks owned a home in 2010. That is down from a peak in 1970 when an average exceeding three of every five Latinos and just shy of three of every five blacks owned homes.
The impact can be profound in a state whose current marketing slogan is "fields of opportunity."
"If Iowa ends up with a reputation for being an intolerant state I think it's going to be very difficult to attract people to our state, to attract businesses to our state," Marshalltown Police Chief Michael Tupper said.
Virgil Gooding, a therapist at Keys to Awareness in Cedar Rapids and a member of that city's African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee, is not convinced that racial attitudes in Iowa are improving. "The issue here is that there's never been an honest conversation about racial attitudes in this state and about the various institutions in the state regarding treatment of African American citizens," he said.
EDUCATION SEEN AS THE STARTING POINT
Latino high school graduation rates in Iowa peaked in 1990 at 64 percent, but in 2010 were down to 53 percent, significantly below the 2010 national Latino graduation rate of 62 percent.
"We used to be a top education state and we've bottomed out tremendously," said Lena Avila Robison, the president of Latinos Unidos of Iowa, a 24-year-old nonprofit organization that provides support services to the state's Latinos. "It's sad."
The black high school graduation rate in Iowa was 83 percent in 2010, 1 percentage point above the national average for blacks but still below the 92 percent white graduation rate in the state.
Many community leaders trying to close the gap focus on education as the starting point. The Calvary Family Center in Fort Dodge tutors youngsters in math and reading. Most of the students were African Americans when Calvary Memorial Church of God in Christ's pastor, the Rev. Leroy Johnson, helped launch the center in 2004 but children from all races attend now.
The Fort Dodge public school district works with the center on programming.
"We were trying to close that disparity gap and try to help, knowing that starting at a young age is - it's more effective if you work with the kids and they get the fundamentals of reading," Calvary Family Center Director Sharla Coleson said.
"Everything involves reading," she said. "We felt if we could get ahold of them when they're younger and help them improve their reading skills, or even take more of an interest in reading, which in turn would improve their skills, we'd be accomplishing something."
Fort Dodge's Athletics for Education and Success (AFES), established in 2004, uses small sports camps and clinics to provide positive messages about school, drug awareness and domestic violence education.
"A lot of things AFES tries to do is to keep kids on the right path," Clayton, the executive director and also cofounder, said. "We just have to find how to disguise it so kids don't know what we're doing."
Iowa's college graduation rates display a significant disparity as well. One of every four white Iowans in the 2010 census graduated college, one of every six African Americans and one of every 10 Latinos.
POVERTY A MAJOR BARRIER
Poverty for Iowa's minorities is growing. While the white poverty rate in Iowa has stayed near 11 percent for 40 years, the rate had increased by 2010 to 43 percent for African Americans and 27 percent for Latinos, the census data show.
"A lot of the problem for African American and Hispanic families is they tend to have a lot more children and they just don't tend to have the same support systems," said Major Von R. Vandiver, commanding officer of the Salvation Army of Siouxland in Sioux City. "When there is a relatively small incident, when the car breaks down or someone gets sick, it just pushes them over the edge and they end up in our emergency shelters."
Correspondingly, median family income and homeownership rates among blacks and Latinos are far lower than for whites in the state.
The 2010 median family income for white Iowans was $62,423, while black families earned $26,760, less than half of what whites made. The median income of Latino families was $38,030.
Median family income for whites in 2010 was 11 times higher than it was in 1960; it only five times higher for blacks and Latinos.
The homeownership rates in Iowa in 2010 were 74 percent for whites, 31 percent for blacks and 51 percent for Latinos. Fifty years early 56 percent of black Iowans and 53 percent of Latinos in the state owned a home.
For Latinos, the low percentage of homeowners may have to do with job searching, Vandiver said.
A WELCOMING STATE
Robison said Iowa has failed to create a welcoming environment for those who struggle with English by not hiring enough Spanish speakers.
"I just left state employment and I will tell you that I feel that they've dropped the ball," Robison, who was an investigator for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, said. "They tend not to hire the bilingual individual who is definitely needed in certain areas."
The Iowa Department of Transportation had been refusing to grant drivers licenses to DREAMers, the term for people younger than 30 brought into the United States illegally by their parents and who were exempted from deportation by the federal government in 2012. The DOT reversed its position in January, but not before creating ill-will among the Latino community.
That language barrier between Latino immigrants and long-time Iowans is a major hurdle but one many immigrants are willing to deal with, Joan Jaimes, an outreach counselor for Marshalltown Community College and secretary of the U.S. Council on Latino Affairs, said.
"It may be difficult, but it would have been worse if they would have stayed wherever they were from," she said.
Gregg Hennigan of The Gazette (Cedar Rapids), Jermaine Pigee of The Hawkeye (Burlington) and IowaWatch data analyst/staff reporter Lauren Mills contributed to this report.