Sunday, June 20, 2021


A new generation challenges the heartland

FORT DODGE, Iowa - Jayden Johnson was 8 years old the first time someone hurled a racial slur at her, a biracial girl frolicking on a playground in this overwhelmingly white town.



She was about 15 years old when a Family Dollar clerk wrongly assumed her black father was on welfare. And she's been pulled over by police several times when in cars with black friends but rarely when with white friends, she says.

Those memories were swirling in Johnson's mind as she read about George Floyd's death in Minneapolis several weeks ago. She pulled out her phone and opened Snapchat.

Jayden Johnson stands in City Square Park in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on June 29, 2020. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Steel Brooks.

"Everybody meet at the square at 8 p.m.," wrote Johnson, 19. "Be there or be square."

As people arrived at the downtown park, Johnson was astonished by the turnout. Instead of the 15 people she expected, about 100 teenagers and young adults - African American, Latino, white and mixed race - gathered to march through this farming and factory town of 25,000 residents.

"Let's get justice," Johnson recalls saying as the group began the first public protest that anyone in town can remember.

"I saw people who looked like me and didn't look like me, and I started thinking, 'Something really is different now,' " Johnson said.

The number of young people of color living in the Midwest has surged over the past decade, as the older white population has nearly stalled. Forty percent of the nation's counties are experiencing such demographic transformations - a phenomenon fueling the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country and forced racial reckonings in communities, colleges and corporations nationwide.

A Washington Post review of census data released last month showed that minorities make up nearly half of the under-30 population nationwide compared to just 27% of the over-55 population, signaling that the United States is on the brink of seismic changes in culture, politics and values.

The protests reflect demographic changes that social scientists have long predicted would hit America around 2020 as the country moves closer toward becoming majority-minority. As this young, diverse cohort enters adulthood, it's challenging the cultural norms and political views of older white Americans, said Stefan M. Bradley, a historian and professor of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University.

"What we are seeing now is younger people with an openness to question traditional American structure in a way that older people are not willing to do," said Bradley, coordinator of diversity and inclusion initiatives at Loyola's Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.

These Black Lives Matter protesters don't always prioritize defunding police departments or tearing down Confederate statues. Their goals are simpler but perhaps just as revolutionary: to force white neighbors not used to encountering so many black and brown faces in their towns to acknowledge their experiences with racism.

"We are saying there is a lot of unconscious bias, and there is still a lot of racial, racist tolerances that one generation has passed down to the next," said Zac Nuzum, 24, a black resident of Fort Dodge who is raising 3-year-old biracial twins. "We are saying the buck stops here."

To some of their older white neighbors, the protesters' demands are overblown. Fort Dodge has already overcome its divisive history, they say. Stories of white and black youths fighting each other in schools and swimming holes are a thing of the past. The racial tensions that exist today, they say, are often fueled by protesters' cries of racism and vilification of law enforcement.

"I think it's terrible because you've got to have police," said Alan Johnson, 65, who is white and worries the protesters are out to undermine local law enforcement. "I've gotten pulled over for a stop sign violation before, and I think the police were a little bit too mean, but I think this has all gone way too far."

The debate over race is echoing through some of Iowa's smallest agricultural communities. Over the past decade, the minority youth population in Iowa counties has outpaced the growth of older white residents in 84 of the state's 99 counties, growing by as much as 56%.

The protests have forced politicians and law enforcement to acknowledge the faces behind those numbers, said Helen Miller, a former eight-term Democratic state lawmaker.

"Ten years ago, I was traveling into really rural communities and would be surprised when, out of nowhere, you would see this little black kid run up and hug his white grandfather," said Miller, who is black and served on the state House Agriculture Committee. "Now, that little boy is 16, 17 or 18 years old, and he's still out there, and he's not going anywhere."

Protesters have already nudged Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state's GOP-controlled legislature to approve sweeping police restructuring measures, including a partial ban on chokeholds, new restrictions on hiring police officers fired for misconduct in other states, and giving the state attorney general power to prosecute officers who cause another person's death.

The bill sailed through the legislative process in mid-June, shocking veteran Iowa political observers accustomed to seeing divisive policy proposals stall for months or years.

"I have never seen a political organization be able to do what they have done this quickly in this state," said Jessica Vanden Berg, a Des Moines-based Democratic consultant. "There is now this sustained political organization of protesters, and it could be hugely impactful to our future here."

Americans should expect more discussions about race in rural regions, said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire. Natural population growth in all minority groups as well as domestic migration will continue to increase the nonwhite population in areas outside of major metropolitan regions, he said.

Counties with no more than 100,000 residents made up 90% of places in the United States where the young minority population grew faster than the older white population. Many of those counties are located in the upper Midwest, where local officials were especially surprised by the intensity of the protests in the weeks after Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police.

There have been more than 3,300 racial justice protests nationwide since late May, including hundreds in sparsely populated communities, according to data compiled by Alex Smith, a mapping analyst who used newspaper articles and social media posts to crowdsource protest information.

Bradley noted that many of the small-town protesters of George Floyd's death were white, a phenomenon he says is partially explained by the growing diversity of their neighbors.

African American and Hispanic people are "moving to these smaller towns for economic reasons or for housing reasons . . . and that allows the majority-white people to be exposed to different cultures and backgrounds, which allows younger generations to grow up normalized to these differences," Bradley said. "It allows younger white people to see things differently than their white grandparents did."

Most demonstrations were peaceful, but clashes between police and protesters erupted in several Midwestern cities undergoing demographic shifts, including in Fargo, N.D., where news outlets reported exchanges of rocks and tear gas. In some smaller towns, demonstrators were confronted by militia members, biker gangs and other counterprotesters or had to overcome rampant rumors that they were associated with anarchists and violent actors.

In Stark County, N.D. - a rural oil and gas community of 30,000 residents - more than 100 protesters had gathered outside the local mall in support of Black Lives Matter when a motorcycle gang arrived professing to protect the mall from potential looting, according to local news. In Charles City, Iowa - a town of 7,300 - businesses boarded up after unfounded rumors swept through the community that busloads of people from Chicago were joining protests.

Here in Webster County, which includes several tiny communities interspersed among hundreds of miles of corn and soybeans, the youth minority population has soared by 21% over the past decade. That has created a stark generation gap: Almost a quarter of residents under 30 are minorities, but nearly the entire population over 55 is white.

Local officials and residents in Webster County say the demographic changes can be traced to several factors: the surge in biracial children, the influx of residents fleeing expensive cities, the growth of agricultural and factory jobs, and the expansion of the local community college that now attracts people from out of state.

Even before the protests, the shifting population dynamics in some Iowa towns had unsettled white residents who complained about an increase in renters and perceptions that immigrants and big-city transplants are leading to more crime.

African Americans first settled in Webster County around 1877, and for much of Fort Dodge's history, the town was largely segregated, with black families living in the river flood plain and white residents occupying bigger homes on the slopes.

Today, interracial dating and friendships are common, especially among younger residents. A majority of voters in the county twice voted for Barack Obama.

But in 2016, after a wave of local plant closings, Webster County made a 27-point swing toward Donald Trump, making him the first Republican presidential candidate since 1980 to carry the county.

For many demonstrators, the real test of their movement will be societal rather than political, using their stories to draw attention to the hurdles they face and the unpleasant encounters they endure as minorities in their community.

Elijah Smith, who is black, moved to Fort Dodge four years ago to attend college and decided to settle down in the community, finding it to be a refreshing change from the poverty and violence of East St. Louis, Ill. Although downtown is littered with abandoned storefronts, and an Army recruiting center is one of the few remaining attractions at the main shopping mall, Smith noted it was relatively easy to find a job that pays $10 to $20 per hour and his rent is an affordable $687 per month.

But Smith's experiences in the town also drove him to join the protesters on May 31, even becoming a chant leader.

"I've been called the n-word more than a few times," said Smith, who works as a bouncer in a bar.

But most bothersome to Smith - and the reason he was at the front of the pack as demonstrators marched to police headquarters - are the words he cannot hear when he sees a shopkeeper monitoring him more closely than a white customer, or the instances when he notices a white pedestrian cross the street to avoid him.

"They say little things under their breath," said Smith, adding that it took the Black Lives Matter protests for him to feel comfortable voicing his experiences publicly. "You can't always see it, and they don't necessarily say anything to you, but you can just feel it."

Other black residents point to more blatant behaviors they hope the protests will change.

Nuzum moved to Fort Dodge from Toledo seven years ago for college, where he says a professor called him "Black Zac." The name stuck, and some Fort Dodge residents still use it.

Nuzum said his generation is tired of the off-handed racial jokes and wants to call out the insensitivity they commonly see from white people on social media.

Three weeks ago, after several University of Iowa football players publicly asked their fans to support the Black Lives Matter movement, a corrections official posted derogatory comments about a player and called the movement "bulls---."

A white member of the Fort Dodge School Board resigned amid criticism for a Twitter post last month about reparations.

"I'm not even sure my ancestors owe anyone an apology . . . but evidently I do," Matt Wagner wrote. "Sorry for all the privilege I get working 60 hours a week, while everyone else is at lakes or looting a target."

He apologized in his resignation letter, saying his "words were poorly chosen and do not reflect what is in my heart."

Nuzum said it's during times of highly divisive national debates that minorities in small towns can feel especially isolated and frustrated over what they read from others on social media.

"You used to just suck it up and swallow it," Nuzum said about disputes over social media. "In their eyes, racism is the KKK, burning churches and hanging black people. . . . So when you'd confront them [about social media posts], they were just like 'it was a joke' and automatically get defensive."

Demonstrators know it won't be easy changing the habits of older residents, especially in a town where some local bars have been known to stop the karaoke machine when someone tries to play hip-hop. At night, some homeowners use bright blue porch or yard lights to show support for local law enforcement.

In Fort Dodge's middle-class Reynolds Park neighborhood, several older white voters said they believe that police, including those now facing murder charges for Floyd's death, use too much force at times. But they were quick to dismiss the demonstrators' concerns about widespread racism in the city.

"We have a black man living over there, and the neighbors over there, their daddy is black," said Ron Hoefling, 64, as he pointed to several biracial children playing on the sidewalk. "They are friends of ours. They mowed my lawn when I was out of town. . . . I would say Fort Dodge is a little above average in regard to racism."

Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter said the protests have presented an opportunity to have more frank discussions with residents of color.

"It's opening my eyes as to how the black kid feels, and how the black man feels," said Porter, adding that he hopes to expand diversity training and initiatives that steer youth offenders into counseling instead of giving them criminal records.

Sgt. Luke Fleener, a 30-year-veteran of the Webster County Sheriff's Department, is also optimistic that Fort Dodge will grow into a better city because of the protesters and their demands.

The nation's racial divisions, Fleener said, are more likely to be sorted out first in a place like Fort Dodge than they are a bigger city.

"We know each other, or we know somebody knows somebody who knows somebody," said Fleener, who is the Republican candidate for sheriff this year. "It's easier for us to have these conversations than in a big city, where the person you are trying to talk to has never met you."



Published : July 12, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Tim Craig, Aaron Williams · NATIONAL, POLITICS, COURTSLAW, RACE