• U.S.

Race Relations: A White Person’s Town?

6 minute read
Jon D. Hull/Dubuque

Before Jerome Greer was invited to relocate from St. Louis and take a job as principal of Irving elementary school in Dubuque, Iowa, the personnel director issued a word of caution: no one in the city had the faintest idea how to cut his hair. “This is a white person’s town,” says Greer, who took the job last July but still gets his hair cut in St. Louis. “On my first day at school, a kid asked me whether I was Bill Cosby.”

Haircuts are the least of Greer’s problems as Dubuque wrestles with a plan to force the town out of its time warp by aggressively recruiting minorities. During the 1940s and 1950s police advised blacks who stepped off the train to move on to the next town. Though the city’s racist past is not unusual, its state of preservation is remarkable. “I was refused housing, insurance, you name it,” says Ruby Sutton, an African American who moved to Dubuque from Chicago in 1962 when her husband was transferred by the railroads. “At least down South they were brutally honest. Here they just lie to you if you’re black.”

Dubuque can be brutal as well. Following a series of cross burnings in 1989, a small group of liberals concluded that “Dubuque has the image of a closed, intolerant, and even racist community.” They set up the Task Force for Constructive Integration, hammered out a nine-page plan for a sweeping re- education of the citizenry and asked the city to recruit 100 minority families by 1995. Though the plan has yet to be officially enacted, the city council endorsed it by a 6-to-1 vote last May. Dubuque hasn’t been the same since. “The plan is perceived by blue-collar workers as a personal threat to their jobs,” says Bob Wahlert, president of F D L Foods and a supporter of the scheme. Twelve cross burnings since July suggest that darker emotions are also involved.

Nestled along the Mississippi River near where the borders of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin converge, Dubuque is an unlikely candidate for social engineering. Of 58,000 residents, fewer than 1,000 are minorities, only one- third of them black. The city, says Mayor James Brady, “missed the 1960s. People can go all their lives without seeing a black person.” That suits ; local white supremacists like Bill McDermott just fine. Says he: “Why should our town be destroyed by black riots and crime?”

Most residents consider McDermott an embarrassment. Desperate to stop the bad publicity, the city has enrolled department heads in racial-sensitivity courses, while billboards plastered across the town inquire, WHY DO WE HATE? Girl Scouts and businesses have distributed 10,000 multicolored ribbons in support of racial harmony, while 300 businesses have published an ad in the Telegraph Herald defending the plan’s principles.

After Alice Scott, a black newcomer from Milwaukee, had a cross burned on her lawn and a brick thrown through her window five weeks ago, dozens of residents, including schoolchildren, came by to express their support. “I cried when I saw all those cards and letters,” says Scott, 32, who has found a job in a sandwich shop. “This town has some good people, and I’m gonna stay.” Adds Charles Azebeokhai, the black head of the city’s human rights office: “The only difference between Dubuque and cities like New York and Chicago is that we’ve got the guts to do something about racism.”

Lots of luck. In Dubuque as elsewhere, racial debates frequently descend into ugly arguments over affirmative action, quotas, welfare — and worse. Smelling fertile soil, Ku Klux Klan national director Thom Robb of Arkansas and a few of his cronies made an appearance three weeks ago, attracting about 150 residents to a rally. “You hear people saying that the Klan sounds kind of reasonable, and that’s scary,” says Francis Giunta, head of the Dubuque Federation of Labor. Plan supporters held counterdemonstrations. Even the Guardian Angels showed up for a few days. At Dubuque Senior High School, police had to patrol the halls following several fistfights between blacks and whites. “The white kids thought their parents would lose their jobs and homes to minorities,” says principal Larry Mitchell, who plans to start a minorities-studies course next year.

Although one poll found that 85% of residents support the concept of increased diversity, more than 2,000 have signed a petition opposing the proposal to recruit minorities. “The vast majority of residents are not wild- eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth racists,” says Michael Pratt, a supporter of the plan. “But people have got the idea that tax money will be spent to bring in welfare families and dump them in the middle of Dubuque.” Pratt lost his city council seat in last month’s election.

The task force is rewriting the initiative, and the watered-down version is expected to avoid any mention of using taxpayer money. Instead, local employers will simply be asked to consider hiring minorities when recruiting for positions that can’t be filled locally. Says J. Steven Horman, president of the Dubuque Chamber of Commerce: “I’m convinced that not one single job will be lost.”

But even the new version is likely to meet with widespread hostility in a town still traumatized by the massive layoffs during the early 1980s at the John Deere Dubuque Works and the now defunct Dubuque Packing Co. Though unemployment stands below the national average and tourism has nearly doubled in the past year thanks to riverboat gambling, few Dubuquers feel secure. “People believe the pie is shrinking, and they are not in the mood to share their piece,” says Giunta.

Particularly with blacks. “To wholesale integrate this town because ‘by God we’re going to integrate’ is not fair,” says businessman David Hartig Jr., who headed the petition drive against the plan. “This is simply a quota plan.” Hartig is at pains to distance himself from the resident bigots, but says, “People who don’t like a closed community like Dubuque can go elsewhere.” He complains that the only reason the plan has survived is because business leaders are afraid to oppose it. “It’s like McCarthyism,” he says. “If you don’t support affirmative-action plans, then you’re called a racist.”

Then again, many Dubuquers simply can’t conceive that a black might be better qualified for a job. And while Mayor Brady insists that Dubuque must diversify to attract more businesses, few residents associate minorities with prosperity. “Blacks have higher crime rates, welfare rates and birthrates,” says McDermott. “Why should we change our life-styles to give blacks preferential treatment?”

Put gently, most residents like their town just the way it is.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com