Racial Justice and Equality in Iowa

Iowa Press | Episode
Aug 13, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests are Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, and Justyn Lewis, a community activist and founder/president of Des Moines Selma, a nonprofit aimed at educating Iowans about the Black experience. They will discuss the ongoing push for racial justice and equality. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

Recorded on Aug. 6, 2021.


(music) After a tumultuous 2020, the issues of racial justice and equality still remain. We sit down with Betty Andrews of Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and Justyn Lewis of the non-profit group Des Moines Selma on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)    Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com. (music)    For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: After the tumultuous events of 2020 provided a spotlight for racial justice and equality issues in America, many of the same concerns remain well into 2021. To explore the Iowa impact and challenges, we're joined by Betty Andrews, President of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and Justyn Lewis, a Community Activist and Founder of Des Moines Selma, a non-profit aimed at educating Iowans about the black experience. Welcome to you both. Thanks for taking time to be with us. Andrews: Thanks so much for having me. Lewis: Thanks for having us. Yepsen: And I want our viewers to know that to accommodate schedules we're taping this on August 6th. Also joining us across the table, Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa and Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Henderson: Betty Andrews, in August of last year Governor Reynolds signed an executive order extending felon voting rights. Iowa Public Radio's Katarina Sostaric did a story recently which found of the roughly 35,000 to 45,000 people who might be eligible to register to vote, only 5,000 have done so. Why? Andrews: That's a really good question why. And we believe, the NAACP believes that part of the issue is that people still have hesitation when dealing with government systems and you can imagine someone who is formerly incarcerated now having to turn to government to do anything. And so we believe very strongly that there is that hesitancy. But also, and I think that this is a huge part of it, there has not been enough strong promotion of the executive order and one of the things that we recently in a meeting with the Governor asked her to do is to use her bully pulpit to make sure that people are aware that this is something that they can do in terms of the formerly incarcerated. And so we are really pushing and we have also started a campaign to do that along with a number of other organizations and we have been working throughout the year to do that as well. Yepsen: Justyn, what is your answer to Kay's question, why so long? Lewis: Can you re-ask the question? Henderson: Among the folks who might be eligible to register, up to 45,000, only 5,000 have taken that option of registering to vote. Lewis: Yeah, I would guess my answer would be, what are the barriers that are holding them back? A lot of people, we've got to be mindful, are fighting just to survive and going to get an ID and sitting in the DMV takes time from their family and their jobs. So I think that may be a barrier. But I'm not too in touch with that just yet. Murphy: Betty Andrews, the felon voting executive order was issued by the Governor. That can be undone by the next Governor, as has been the case with recent administrations. A more permanent solution has proved elusive thus far in amending the state's Constitution. What is your hope for the future of that proposal? Is that still a possibility that we get a proposed constitutional amendment? Or do you fear with the current makeup of the Iowa legislature that that's not going to get to the Iowa voters? Andrews: I think you're hitting it right on the head with the question in terms of we are hopeful that a constitutional amendment could happen. We would love to see the tenets of executive order number 7 permanently in place. However, under the current legislature we are a little bit hesitant because we are not certain that they would be interested in passing such an amendment that would be as strong as the executive order. So we are kind of playing it by ear and just kind of watching to see what that next move might be. Murphy: And Justyn Lewis, to you, the other thing that the legislature did in preparation for a possible constitutional amendment is added a requirement that if this becomes a constitutional amendment that there are some additional requirements for someone who completes their sentence. For example, they would have to pay court fines or things like that, which some advocates have expressed concerns about. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that and if that undoes the good that making these people eligible in the first place. Lewis: I believe once you're released you have served your time and you have paid your debt to society. So, effectively making those folks pay off those debts is still really incarcerating them outside of the penitentiary and jail cell. So, I think it's important that once they are released they should be able to become citizens again and we should treat them like citizens. And this is truly a barrier. Andrews: And speaking of citizens, if I may, the other thing that advocacy organizations and in particular the NAACP have done is worked with the Secretary of State's office to make sure that this process is welcoming. So, in order to register we offered language for their website and for their video to ensure that people understand and are welcomed into this process. We also called for the meeting of the voter registration form successfully. That commission met and did make some changes in order to update the language to show that people with a felony background can vote. Yepsen: If somebody watching maybe has a felony background and would like to vote, what should they do? Andrews: Well, one of the things they can do is contact the NAACP. But also they can simply contact the Secretary of State's office. The information is there online and we hope that it's much easier to access just because of the work that we have done. And so we would encourage them to do that. Also, any organization that they may have been working with that would be helpful. The other thing that we are doing is working with the Governor to work with the Department of Corrections so that there is outreach from the Department of Corrections to those who have been released from custody or off paper that they can notify those individuals as well. So there is a number of avenues that we are looking at in terms of pushing to ensure that we get those other 40 plus thousand people registered. Yepsen: All right, what if they don't have access to a computer? Can they go to the county auditor's office in their county and have their problem solved? Andrews: They can. They can go to the county auditors. They can certainly call any of the official agencies. They can call really any official, any public official should be able to direct them to the registration process. Yepsen: Before we go any farther with our interview, I just want to give each of you a chance to explain a little bit about what your organizations do. A lot of people may be familiar with or have heard of the NAACP. But what is it you're doing -- Andrews: Sure. So, the NAACP, we are about 112 years old now so we are the nation's oldest and largest and with the most longevity in terms of civil rights and social justice. And so we have been around for quite a bit of time and in Iowa we have about 30 units of the organization and those fall in my jurisdiction. So we are on the ground in many communities across Iowa. Yepsen: And Justyn, what is Des Moines Selma? Lewis: Des Moines Selma was birthed out of the movement of Black Lives Matter last summer. And as the leader of it, what I realized was it was the education and the lack of understanding of our community that was holding things back. And since then we have been in a lot of non-profit and for-profit organizations teaching about the black experience but teaching about implicit bias and also pushing the culture of the company forward as well. So that is what we've been doing and that is what we've been focusing on. Henderson: Justyn, there have been some recent acquittals of people who were arrested during protests in the Des Moines area last year and there has been some criticism of the Des Moines Police Department and how it handled the protests. What is your view? Lewis: Yeah, so I'm all for free speech. I'm all for folks being out to get into the streets and air out their grievances. That is our American right and that is what was given to us at the creation of this country. So, I think when those are being jeopardized by law enforcement, rightfully so charges should be dropped, the cases should be removed. I think that was the main issue on a lot of acquittals being handed out here recently. Henderson: Betty Andrews, what is your view? Andrews: Well, I think in general we need to look at freedom of speech in our state. Here in this last legislative session we got really harsh laws aimed at kind of the backlash for protestors and we should really be focusing on making sure that people are able to speak because that actually makes our government stronger. And so seeing people rightfully and lawfully protesting shouldn't be an issue. And so in terms of acquittals, obviously we want people to be safe and the law to be upheld, but we do also want to make sure that people are exercising or are allowed to exercise their constitutional rights. Murphy: And that was exactly what I wanted to ask you about next, we saw legislation pass and the Governor at the start of the session proposed a combined package of some support for law enforcement and some social justice or racial equity issues. Only one side of that ledger got moved. I'll ask you both about this. But, Betty, I'll start with you. How disappointed were you on that? And how much of that do you think was backlash over the protests or were some legislators do you feel reacting to the defund the police movement? What are your thoughts on that? Andrews: Sure, so the NAACP has deemed this last session the most anti-black session in recent history. So this is -- even if we started with the anti-racial profiling or unbiased policing bill paired with the back the blue, it was hugely upsetting for us to see those two pieces of legislation even combine because they really serve two completely different purposes. And also after having met and worked with the Governor's focus committee on criminal justice for over a year with the goal of an unbiased policing bill it was really, it was a hard hit. It was like a poison pill. And so just thinking about that and then we get even the qualified immunity for the police, there was already qualified immunity on the table, so now police officers have even less personal responsibility to act. And what we want to say, and certainly I understand the cries for defund the police and I also understand what the concerns are around those cries. However, the goal was certainly not to empower police to be able to step even further down a path that is dangerous for people. Murphy: Justyn, maybe I'll ask you because it seems like when you talk about defund the police you ask three different people what that means and you may get three different answers. When you hear or say that term to you is that a literal term? Is that a figurative term? What does defund the police mean? Lewis: Well, like you said, it's multiple things. But from my perspective it has always been about government accountability and transparency, government bending to the will of people listening to the concerns of its residents and citizens and doing right by them. So, even this summer when I led one of the largest marches in Iowa with over 5,000 people, it wasn't about defunding the police for me, it was about holding them accountable for their actions. Even if you're facilitating the law, you're not above the law. And at the end of the day, I'm a culture builder and I go into these spaces, so it's setting the standard high. If you act out and you break the trust of communities and of citizens and residents you have to be removed so that culture can start going forward. Yepsen: Isn't it time though for black leaders like each of you disavow this defund the police rhetoric? It's a political loser and it has backfired politically. Republicans are jumping up and down at what Congresswoman Bush from St. Louis is doing, sleeping on the steps of the Capitol saying, defund the police. Why don't you just disavow it and move on? Lewis: Yeah, so the trainer in me, what I would call folks to do here in Iowa is to lean in and listen. Why are people so frustrated that they would want to defund law enforcement? What is going on? What is the true concern? What is at the core of those cries for justice, that core of alleviating a service that protects a lot of us here in Iowa? So, what I would call folks to do that are watching and listening now is to lean in, lean into your black friend, lean into your black cousin, lean into your black co-worker and start asking questions about what is going on in your community? What have you seen? Because we have all experienced something in the black community that some of our white counterparts won't understand or won't see but we need you to listen and understand. Yepsen: Betty Andrews? Andrews: It certainly provokes the conversation in terms of the terms defund the police. And as Justyn mentioned earlier, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So for people who have kind of a very narrow view of what it means, they may want to have people denounce it. But when you think about how it is really a call for accountability and asking people to take a look and also divest some of the funds that are used in policing into mental health and other strategies, that is where a lot of leaders stand. Yepsen: Why not say it that way? Defund the police means, look up the meaning, to take money away from. You just are not talking about that. You're talking about a lot of other things. Andrews: Right. I think that people have been saying it that way. They have been saying it that way for some time and with the conversation and using the terminology defund the police, kind of like critical race theory, it certainly does engage people to have that conversation. And when you start talking about the extreme it does open in some ways the opportunity to talk about some of the other things that can be done between here and there. Yepsen: And we want to talk about other things. Kay? Henderson: Let’s talk about racial profiling. A bill on racial profiling has emerged through the Iowa Senate before. The Governor proposed it as part of a larger package this year. As you mentioned, Betty Andrews, it was part of a negotiated sort of task force oriented package that was presented to legislators. Why in your view is it not gaining traction and becoming law? Andrews: Well, it's interesting. Certainly, quite frankly I believe that some of the backlash from this past year. So we can talk about that there have been gains from the protests but clearly we have seen a number of legislative dives to counter that. And if you ask me I think it's racism. That is the reason why it was not supported and it did not pass. In terms of some of the things that that piece of legislation proposed, it was data collection. That data collection is extremely important in terms of putting an eye to make sure that we are doing what we're supposed to be doing when it comes to our citizens, kind of like what Dr. King said, that check that needs to be cashed that African-Americans and other people of other races need to cash that check. So that data collection piece and a number of the other things, they are not bad and many of them were supported by the Iowa Chief's Association and a number of other things. So I feel that it was partly due to this climate, just the backlash. We're seeing laws that were written or executive orders from President Trump that are kind of transposed now into state law, etcetera, etcetera. Murphy: We wanted to ask you each about a couple of issues that arose also from this legislative session. You referenced, Betty, one that did pass and one that didn't. Justin, I'll start with you. The legislature did act on schools that had diversity, so-called diversity plans. They banned schools from having those which were put in place to allow schools to reject some open enrollment in order to remain a more diverse student population. We've already seen that having an impact. My group of papers reported Waterloo, Des Moines, Davenport, some of the districts with the highest percentage of black students in the state, have seen white students leaving the districts. What is your level of concern with those? And this is kind of exactly what advocates who were opposed to that proposal warned about, right? And what is your level of concern for the future of those minority students in those districts? Lewis: It honestly reminds me of not too long ago of segregation when private schools would start popping up in the South and if you're familiar with the term white flight where folks were just leaving the inner cities and going to the suburban areas. That legislation allowed that to take place and it is going to continue to take place. I think the biggest thing that we need more than anything is we need our white counterparts and our family members to really start doing the work of who are we voting for and what are they representing and what are they going to do? Because this is a clear action of racism, it's a clear action of a lack of connection to folks in the black community, Hispanic community, people of color communities. It is getting scary for us for sure. Yepsen: Just a few minutes left. Murphy: And Betty, you mentioned critical race theory. There wasn't a critical race theory specific bill that passed the Iowa legislature. They did one that banned so-called divisive topics. But more broadly than that, the 1619 Project, these things that people are trying to use to teach about the history of this country and racism's role in that early time, I just wanted to get your thoughts on how useful they are and your thoughts on these bills, these efforts to stop the use of those in schools. Andrews: We had a lot of challenges on Capitol Hill this year when it came to education and certainly, as Justyn mentioned, and I just want to acknowledge as a representative of the organization that successfully argued Brown vs. the Board of Education, we were really daunted in terms of the support for in a roundabout way re-segregating schools and I think that that is what has been happening in Iowa. And in terms of the bill that was passed that was really close to critical race theory, we certainly I think the bigger concern about that bill is the chilling effect that it has and the message that it sends and quite frankly the concern in terms of generally what happened in the legislature this year is about the spirit that was behind it. And we feel very strongly that that spirit had a lot of racial implications. Yepsen: Kay? Henderson: Erin and I get paid to listen to the legislature debate and during the back the blue debate, which enhanced penalties for protest-related crimes, republican legislators argued that protestors were not respectful of small business property, there was damage to small business property and damage to government property in some instances and so that was why they needed to pass these enhanced regulations or penalties. What do you say to those who say those things were needed because of what they saw during the protests? Lewis: Fearmongering, looking for a bogeyman, looking for an issue that isn't there. Like I said, I led one of the largest marches and there was no property damage. Everyone was very well-mannered. We had business owners giving out water and free merchandise and Black Lives Matter signs and Support Black Lives Matter. And a bunch of organizations have seen large increases in our donations and so forth. So what I will say to some of those republican legislators, who I know are not from Des Moines, who I know who are not connected to a lot of these inner city organizations and non-profits, come down here and have some conversations with us. Henderson: Betty, one of the things the NAACP has been arguing for is criminal sentencing reform. What are the prospects for that in the current environment? Andrews: Well, we continue to press but we also recognize that we're up against a legislature that has ideas of their own and we have made some progress in years past when it came to crack cocaine versus powder cocaine sentencing. So we are always pressing and pushing and we're also working with the Supreme Court to work on some of their laws not only for sentencing but also the bail system in terms of how that is scheduled and what crime constitutes so much bail. So a number of other things. Yepsen: Justyn, we've got just about a minute left. What is your view of the state of race relations in Iowa today? Lewis: I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful because of the organizations we have went into and had these discussion and they are going to continue to bring us back and they are pushing our message out to the other orgs. What I truly want to see is that we bring up these conversations, these divisive conversations, but talk about bias and where they come from and how they grow into prejudice and racism and hate. That would make the difference. Yepsen: Betty Andrews, less than a minute. State of race relations in Iowa? Andrews: I think hopeful is a good word. That is why we do this work. However, we're also realistic and know that it's going to take a lot of work. And so our plan is to keep on pushing and educating and building relationships and making sure that we are focused on -- protesting is important but also policy and moving to policy and that is the work that the NAACP continues to do. Lewis: And representative leadership as well. We need folks that look like us in power. Andrews: Absolutely. Yepsen: And I need to watch the clock. We're out of time. Thank you both for being with us today. Andrews: Thank you so much for having us. Lewis: Thank you. Thanks for having us. Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press as we explore the issues confronting Iowa's private colleges. We'll be joined by Grinnell College President Anne Harris and Wartburg College President Darrel Colson. That is Iowa Press next week at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today. (music) Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.