Many of you know that my hometown is Columbus Junction, Iowa. I posted several times in June about the floods that consumed Eastern Iowa, including my town – the “CJ”. Home of the Wildcats. The place where I grew up.
I’ve had a Chicago Tribune article that references Columbus Junction in my bookmarks for quite sometime now. The article was published on the Tribs website in June.
I wanted to share the article and post it, not as something that tarnishes my hometown, but as an example of the realities of where I come from.
Excerpts after the cut…
Columbus Junction is a place where last week’s floods brought the roiling, contradictory responses to disaster, the generous and the rancorous, into plain view.
Tom Huston is chairman of the bank his father founded, and he has reached an age where his son runs the bank day to day. He is rightly proud that this town out of “American Gothic” has so warmly embraced the influx of Hispanic residents. Drawn by jobs at the Tyson pork-processing plant, Hispanics now make up 40 percent of Columbus Junction’s population.
As they fought—unsuccessfully, it turns out—to stop the Iowa River from flooding the town, the newcomers worked side by side with families who have lived in Columbus Junction for generations.
“We don’t rely on the government to come tell us what to do,” Huston said. “We don’t stand around and wait for other people to do for us. We’re not that way.”
Hispanic residents, in particular, “dived right in,” he said.
In Huston’s view, though, not everyone pitched in.
“We have some people who work for Tyson—the colored—they sat around,” he said. “They didn’t know to go fill sandbags. They washed their cars. Or they sat in the window and watched.”
“Some people are raised that way. You sit and wait for somebody to do something for you,” Huston added.
According to census data, African-Americans make up 0.6 percent of Columbus Junction’s population. In other words, about 12 live in town. Whether any actually helped on the levee is anybody’s guess.
Earlier in the week, after leaving the Oakville sandbagging site where hundreds of volunteers scrambled to save the Big Ditch levee, I drove past a public golf course. Less than 5 miles from the flooded devastation along the Mississippi River, several foursomes were at play. Not a single minority was among them.
When I mentioned the golfers to Huston and observed that people from all walks of life can be sublimely indifferent to the pain that surrounds them, he got the point.
The article contains a recipe for institutional oppression — 1 part white privilege, 1 part racism, a pair of shiny bootstraps and a dash of classism. I wonder what it’s like to chair a bank that your father founded and that your son runs? I wonder what it’s like to be in position that affords great influence within the community while simultaneously reinforcing the myth of meritocracy and perpetuating racist stereotypes?
This is my hometown…
The final portion of the article, while not directly related to the paragraphs on Columbus Junction, does a nice job of promoting compassion and advises against engaging in a hierarchy of misery…
There was no Superdome-style meltdown in central Iowa. There is no density of destruction to match New Orleans’ 9th Ward. The handful of flood-related deaths don’t compare with the more than 1,500 who lost their lives in Katrina, and the many thousands more who lost their homes. And since the flooding began just more than a week ago, the American public has barely had time to chip in. By making such comparisons, though, one falls into a trap—measuring misery against misery in in an effort to say one is deeper than another.
We should avoid tallying score cards of suffering. Pain jolts just as hard, whether it hits a white farmer or a black resident of New Orleans’ 9th Ward. The only tally worth keeping is the one that measures the depth of our compassion.