In Sioux City, Racial Tension Has Kept the Status Quo. But Wokeness is Quickly Sweeping the Midwest.
Updated: Sep 13
As we know, change happens slowly. The nation’s growing impatience in dealing with the pandemic exacerbates the issue. Minorities and immigrants, wearied from the generations-long battle for racial justice, were pushed to the brink upon seeing the news of George Floyd. Waves of protests and rioting cascaded from one major city to the next. Meanwhile, in small Midwest towns, much of life continued as on it always had. Only now—after many years of keeping the status quo—there are enough people of a different skin tone to stand up and take notice.
Sioux city, Iowa is one of those small, midwestern towns. It borders Nebraska to the west, where a sparse rural landscape is interrupted occasionally by highway passersby. One wouldn’t expect to find much in the way of protests, at least not of the St. Paul or Chicago variety. The push for societal change is far less flashy. Yet it still emerges, as is the case in other towns nearby. Two hours away, in Fort Dodge, the town saw perhaps its first big protest of any kind in recent memory. About forty minutes north, Vermillion, South Dakota had yet another (interestingly, the town of Wakonda, both distinct in its spelling and racial makeup from the movie version of Wakanda, is not far away).
Erica DeLeon is the Director for OneSiouxLand, where she works to help everyone manage the changes, one day at a time. Her husband, who is Hispanic, represents one such component of the region’s shifting demographics. The surrounding metro area has grown by nearly 9 percent over the past thirty years, where those of Hispanic origin comprise roughly seven percent of the total population. Sioux City sits on the Mississippi River, at the intersection of three different states—Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. DeLeon gets more done at the grassroots level given this unique geography.
“I’m kind of the bridge between multiple entities,” explains DeLeon. “We may tend to get more available resources on the Iowa side since it’s a bigger town. Yet on the Nebraska side, we tend to see more boots on the ground. There’s a lot of coordination across state lines, but more of the activity comes from the local non-profits.”
DeLeon notes the number of newcomers and takes it as a promising trend. Though economic growth has been slow in some segments, she reports big wins, like a $300 million pork processing plant expected to generate nearly two-thousand jobs at full capacity. Naturally, an operation at that scale faces its own challenging logistics because of the pandemic. Still, the biggest potential for growth comes from immigrants, many who are running small businesses.
OneSiouxLand coordinates efforts to serve underrepresented populations as a means of spurring entrepreneurship and economic development. People like Jose “Lupe” Gonzalez provide an ideal for what’s possible. Gonzalez is deeply embedded and invested in the community as an entrepreneur, a soccer coach and a city council member. He even ran in 2018 against incumbent Mayor Rod Koch, citing the need for greater Hispanic representation as a core issue. He would’ve become the city’s first ever mayor of Latino origin.
Gonzalez struggles to understand the irrational logic behind anti-immigrant sentiment. He hears some people argue that immigrants come and steal jobs from native-born citizens. Yet those supposedly ‘stolen’ jobs provide long hours for little pay—an untenable scenario for many Americans but enticing to newcomers.
“In Mexico, you’ll have a person who works from sun-up to sun-down, six days a week. They may go home with no more than one-hundred fifty dollars,” explains Gonzalez. “That same person will come to the US and only make $9 dollars an hour, but it means a lot more to them. They work that much harder.”
Despite the growing paradigm of racial tensions across the country, Gonzalez says he has not personally faced discrimination. As Erica DeLeon explains, the approach of many brown peoples is not to entirely dismiss racism as an issue. Rather, there’s a cultural attitude of prioritizing one’s own family and livelihood over worrying about the perceptions of others. However, these perceptions often work their way into policy. We’ve seen how racism informs lawmaking, with everything from Jim Crow legislation to current immigration issues. It’s becomes unavoidable to by-step racism, even with the most disciplined of maneuvers. When congressman Steve King was ousted from office earlier this year, DeLeon was one of many who found relief. King, a stalwart Republican, had received criticism for his divisive comments about immigrants and defense of white supremacy.
But pushing out one individual does not erase ethnocentrism altogether. It will take many more years along with a multitude of voices to move the needle further. Then there’s the added challenge of addressing economic growth amid anti-immigrant agendas. At one time, towns like Sioux City were driven heavily by the industrial sector. Over a century later, many longtime residents are struggling to shift into the information era. Immigrants, on the other hand, may come to fill job slots that misalign with their skillsets. DeLeon points out that those who arriving were in high-skill fields in their native countries, even practicing law or medicine. “But if they don’t speak the language or if their credentials don’t transfer over, they end up working the assembly lines,” she says.
City administrators and other officials are working to draw in more diverse sectors to match the higher skills of workers, while educational institutions offering four-year degrees are seeking to accelerate the workforce in the 21st century. In many small towns, the concern for jobs is a shared by liberals and conservatives alike. Whereas big cities prefer to spotlight their wokeness, Midwest communities don’t have the same luxury. This can tend to split immigrant views, landing on either side between confronting xenophobia or prioritizing economics.
DeLeon says she’s continually surprised by where certain people fall. “I know plenty of Muslims who voted for Trump because they appreciated his economic views. This was during an outright Muslim ban. It wasn’t a chief concern for them because they’re already here.” Lupe Gonzalez is a registered Democrat, but also doesn’t focus on race. However, as a dedicated, hardworking immigrant, he points out the fallacy of denigrating foreigners.
“Do we have [some] people coming to this country who shouldn’t be here? Yes,” says Gonzalez. “But let’s not get it confused. There were already some of the worst people here to begin with. People who commit mass shootings—we have more mass killers than anywhere else. So how can you say we’re getting the worst from other countries? I don’t understand that.”
Please note: this article is published by GigRoots in coordination with Welcoming America. Welcoming America is leading a national movement of cultivating inclusive communities. They work with non-profits and local governments, providing tools and resources to help make cities places where everyone can belong. Through their network, we’ve spoken with local leaders and business owners actively contributing to strengthening their communities.