Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service – IL

A new report by EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) state partners highlights the racial disparities within a dozen Midwestern states. Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity, and Public Policy in the Midwest, authored by Colin Gordon from the University of Iowa and the Iowa Policy Project, is a comprehensive look at the causes and consequences of black-white disparities in the Midwest. The report also provides a policy framework to address these disparities.

“While many Midwestern cities appear in viral ‘best places to live’ lists, they are also among the very worst places to live for African Americans,” said Gordon. “These patterns of stark discrimination and vast racial disparities have long-lasting impacts on families of color in the Midwest.”

Gordon, explained the problem stems from the industrial boom, when many African-Americans sought job opportunities in the Midwest. He said they found what he calls an “architecture of segregation.”

“Because African-Americans fled into the Midwest for largely unionized manufacturing jobs, the collapse of that manufacturing-job base and the unions that accompanied it, does enormous damage,” Gordon said. “Jobs move out to the suburbs, but the people who used to hold those jobs are quite literally stuck in place.”

The report authors note that these disparities are “compounded by the social positions occupied by black and white Midwesterners and by the ways in which they understand or experience patterns of subordination or exclusion.” For the region’s white working class economic struggles and a lack of decline of middle class jobs are represented as African Americans and/or immigrants stealing their jobs and opportunities. 

From the report

Indeed, as Kathy Cramer and others have suggested, the “politics of resentment” that buoyed the electoral prospects of Scott Walker and Donald Trump are animated in large part by nativist and racial anxieties; by the conviction that others—African Americans, immigrants, trading partners—are hoarding unfair advantages.  At the same time, the “discovery” of white working class angst and anxiety in the Midwest— captured in “Hillbilly Elegy” meditations and in their political implications—starkly misrepresents a region that is home to over 7 million African-Americans. 

“It is a bitter irony,” as Tamara Winfrey-Harris wrote last year, “that many of the arguments about Mr. Trump’s appeal to Midwesterners make sense only if you pretend black people don’t exist in the middle of the country.”

Gordon finds racial disparities in education, employment, wages, income, poverty, homeownership, incarceration, access to health care, wealth, and voting access. Findings include:

  • Six Midwestern states (Ill., Wis., Minn., Iowa, Neb., and Kan.) all suspend black students at more than five times the rate of white students.
  • Ten Midwestern states (Wis., Minn., Ill., Ohio, Mich., Ind., Iowa, Neb., Mo., and Kan.)—along with neighboring Pa.—made up the eleven states with the largest ratio between black and white unemployment in 2017.
  • Of the six metropolitan areas in which concentrated poverty among blacks exceeds 40%, five (Detroit, Milwaukee, Gary, Dayton, and Cleveland) are in the Midwest.
  • Every Midwestern state imprisons African Americans at more than five times the rate of whites.
  • At every income level, African Americans are less likely to receive preventative health care and more likely to receive lower-quality care.

Gordon noted these disparities are not the result of the inevitable consequence of globalization and technological change, but rather clear and intentional public policies. 

“Policies segregating housing, that undercut the power of labor unions, that made decisions about whether to fund enforcement of civil rights or not,” he said. “So while in some respect it’s a sort of dismal catalogue, it’s also a hopeful one because what we’ve done by policy can also be undone by policy.”

Gordon recommends a comprehensive slate of policy recommendations to achieve racial equity in the Midwest including: investing in public education, raising wages for all workers, addressing labor market discrimination, adopting paid family leave and low-cost child care, and improving our social safety net.

“It’s time for policymakers to fully recognize the economic harm that structural racism has caused Black families in all parts of the country,“ said Naomi Walker, Director of EARN. “In a time of federal inaction, states must step up to address disparate economic outcomes by strengthening public education, bolstering workers’ rights and strengthening labor standards, and eliminating discrimination.”

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