BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL — With racial tensions, protests and violence boiling over in cities like Ferguson and Charleston, some residents of Bloomington-Normal say the twin cities are not exempt from the ongoing national dialogue about race.
“We’re ‘grace away’ from being a Ferguson,” said Normal Town Council member Chemberly Cummings. “We have to be diligent as a community to make sure it does not happen.”
Cummings, who was elected as Normal’s first black Council member in 2017, expressed hope for the future, while noting there is work yet to do. “Whether it’s based off of race, age, gender, class—you need to feel like you have a place here.”
She added, “I do love the community. I feel like it has a lot of potential to do some wonderful things. It will never be perfect. No place ever is.”
While many may not think of the twin cities as segregated along racial lines, researchers at Illinois State University found otherwise, according to a report released in 2017.
Citing multiple disparities in traffic stops and incarceration rates, as well as access to healthcare and transportation concerns, the community is divided along measurable racial lines, they said. “Bloomington-Normal was and is intolerant; discrimination did and does take place in this community; we are segregated.”
The report also cited a lack of access to quality grocery options and healthcare facilities in lower income areas with higher concentrations of minority residents as further evidence of segregation, particularly in the southern and western areas of Bloomington.
While Connect Transit bus service enables nearly all residents access to these services, the researchers noted that for many lower-income residents, reliance on public transportation can require devoting 45 to 90 minutes to travel to a doctor’s appointment.
“Residents on the Westside are, in general, further removed from services than their Eastside counterparts and these services are generally located on roads not friendly to pedestrians,” they said. “Public transportation can get residents to these services, though these trips often require multiple transfers and can represent an additional cost (especially in time) that some residents cannot afford.”
Whether disparities like this are influenced by factors other than race is not as simple to pin down.
Ryan Denham, Digital Content Director at WGLT, observed, “I think the actual segregation is more socioeconomic—the neighborhoods we live in, the stores we shop at, etcetera.”
He added, “But as a white guy, my view on this is full of blind spots.”
Cummings agreed. “I do believe it’s segregated, but not so much just from racism. I think it’s more segregated by class.”
“…IN BLOOMINGTON, BLACK-AMERICANS ARE OVER TWICE AS LIKELY TO BE SEARCHED COMPARED TO WHITES.”
Nonetheless, race does play a role, she said. “There’s always going to be a race component. I think it’s a reality that there’s some who don’t want to acknowledge it.”
The researchers at ISU noted the causes of segregation can be multi-faceted, with race and economics intersecting with age, gender, and sexual orientation as well.
Nick McBurney, a resident of Bloomington, agreed. “Systemic racism is economic in action. Access to better schooling, better paying jobs, and by extension, better homes is given to whites first, everyone else second,” he said. “De facto segregation is created by treating people of color as a second or third choice in all hiring and housing decisions.
“There is no such thing as purely economic segregation,” McBurney added.
“The economic segregation is more noticeable, but it certainly has racial undertones,” echoed Justin Boyd, a Bloomington insurance agent.
ISU’s study found that black drivers are more likely to be targeted for traffic stops than white drivers in Bloomington, and more likely to have their vehicles searched as well. “We find that in Bloomington, white drivers had a 5.6 percent chance of having a search conducted, Latino drivers had a 8.6 percent chance of having a search conducted, and Black-American drivers have a 13 percent chance of having a search conducted,” noted the study’s authors.
“So, in Bloomington, Black-Americans are over twice as likely to be searched compared to whites.”
Despite this, police data cited in the report revealed black drivers were no more likely to be in possession of drugs. On the contrary, searches conducted in vehicles driven by whites were more likely to produce illegal paraphernalia. “For Bloomington, although white drivers have the lowest chance of their car being searched, they have the highest percent of being in possession of drugs,” the report concluded.
According to Cummings, discrimination in Bloomington-Normal may take any number of forms, including small, nearly imperceptible interactions or “microaggressions” that may go unnoticed by non-minorities in the community.
“To say to an African American woman—who probably wears her hair natural 80 percent of the time—when she gets a weave or she presses her hair, to say that her hair looks beautiful today.” This can be an subtle, yet offensive interaction, Cummings said. “It’s a microaggression. And people do it all the time.”
Cummings explained that some may minimize such instances as harmless or unintentional, but the accumulated, daily experience of such experiences can be harmful to improved race relations. “Those are the things that are often assumed and can start off or seem to be innocent, but can have negative impacts,” she said.
“THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DIVERSITY AND TRUE INCLUSION.”
Bloomington-Normal’s population remains predominantly Caucasian, according to census data which shows that whites make up 77.6 percent of Bloomington’s population, and 83.9 percent of Normal’s. By comparison, African Americans comprise 11.1 percent of Bloomington and 8.7 percent of Normal.
Because of this, many white residents are able to avoid interactions with minority residents, Cummings said. “I oftentimes feel like racism is downplayed, because you do have so many who don’t have to deal. You might see an African American, but you do not have to deal with them. You don’t have to interact with them. You don’t have to engage with them,” she said.
For Cummings, diversity coupled with inclusion and understanding is the way forward.
“There is a difference between diversity and true inclusion,” she said. “We can all sit in a room together, but who will approach me? Who really wants to know what I’m thinking? Who really cares to know what my thoughts are or value what I have to add?” she said.
“I would like to see a true diverse community.”