A Candid Talk About Race

Feb 27, 2015

The nation has spent the past month honoring black history. Part of that past includes the lingering disparities between blacks and whites in the U.S.

University of Iowa Law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig.
Credit University of Iowa Law School

It’s been more than 60 years since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, which judged separate public schools for black and white students in Topeka, Kansas, were unconstitutional. And yet, says University of Iowa Law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, schools are more segregated today than they were then. Her conclusion is supported by a study from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Onwuachi-Willig, a former finalist for a seat on the Iowa Supreme Court, says if the races are ever to come closer to understanding one another, the lessons have to start young.

“If we could integrate schools more we could get young people getting to know each other before their defenses have really gone up," she says. "Before they have all of these stereotypes imbedded in their psyche.”

Onwuachi-Willig says the separation of blacks from whites in schools, in neighborhoods, at many levels of society, leads to the creation of ugly stereotypes. And that in turn leads to situations like those in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., resulting in the deaths of young black men.

“We see the consequences of blackness being associated with criminality," she says.  "And black maleness being associated with danger and in some cases even with sort of superhuman powers that have to be subdued with the most excessive forms of violence.”

Onwuachi-Willig grew up in Houston, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. She lived in an apartment complex filled primarily with African-Americans and Latinos. But she says she had the advantage of attending integrated schools.

“It doesn’t mean we always got along," she says. "For example, I went to a high school that regularly had racial riots, but I felt like I learned a lot just simply being in that kind of environment.”

She moved from that racially diverse community to enroll at Grinnell College. Upon arrival in the mostly white Iowa town, she was surprised to realize she carried her own set of embedded stereotypes.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen a white person in a role as a janitor or a cleaning person," she says. "Never in my entire life. Where I grew up in the South, those were roles assigned to African-Americans.”

And then came the election of the nation’s first black president, an event Onwuachi-Willig thought would show African-Americans any job is possible.

“I think it’s incredible to be a child born into a world or to live in a world where we have a black president,: she says. "And to live in a world where that’s not viewed as odd.”

The presence of Barack Obama in the White House has not exactly brought the nation together. Vast racial disparities in housing, education, jobs and the justice system still exist. In fact, Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady used his State of the Judiciary address to point out the disproportionately high number of blacks in prison. Almost ten percent of black men in the state are behind bars, the third highest rate in the nation. Onwuachi-Willig says if progress is to be made toward racial harmony, society cannot take a colorblind approach.

“So many people think simply ignoring race is the way to get to it," she says.  "That is absolutely not the way to get rid of the disparities. The way to get rid of the disparities is to acknowledge [race] and to take it into account.”

Onwuachi-Willig says if there is anything positive to come out of the high-profile, killings of Michael Brown outside St. Louis, Eric Gardner in New York City and the Florida teenager Trayvon Martin it is that issues of race are now part of a national conversation. She says more people are beginning to understand how far we have to go in the U.S. to achieve complete racial equality. 

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