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Report Finds Widespread Racial, Economic Disparities In Bloomington-Normal

A new report on inequality in Bloomington-Normal shows that poor and minority residents live in neighborhoods that have more noise and air pollution, less quality housing, fewer places to buy fresh, healthy food, and less transportation opportunities.

The report was compiled by the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development for the grass roots organization Not In Our Town.

It presents a portrait of a community that has made progress in race relations, but where some disparities between the races and the rich and poor have been allowed to fester for decades.

The report also found that police traffic stops in Normal far outpace the number of stops in larger central Illinois cities, but that many citizens feel Bloomington police are more aggressive in dealing with minorities.

Reinforcing conclusions found in earlier analyses by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and Black Lives Matter of Bloomington-Normal, the study found that African Americans are disproportionately more likely to be frisked and have their cars searched during police stops.

Blacks are arrested more frequently, and blacks and Hispanics spend more time in the county jail than whites.

On a positive note, researchers found that many Bloomington-Normal neighborhoods are more integrated proportionately than those of six other central Illinois cities, including Peoria, Springfield, Champaign, Urbana, Rockford and Decatur, but that a large number of Twin Cities neighborhoods remain exclusively white.

“I found that while, overall, there are a lot of areas where Bloomington-Normal needs to improve, everybody that (the research team) spoke with in the community is really hopeful for the future and sees the community improving quickly,” said Renee Palecek, an ISU graduate student in sociology who worked on the report.

The researchers examined police and jail records and census data. They also conducted focus groups and individual interviews with citizens, community leaders and public officials.

Police-community relations loomed large in many of the interviews, the researchers said.

The study found that Normal conducted 19,600 traffic stops in 2015, nearly three times more traffic stops than several other cities in central Illinois, including Bloomington, which had about 9.700 that year.

The stops were spread among white, black and Latino Americans, Palecek said.

Bloomington officers, however, were cited for their "aggressive" tactics, especially with regard to minorities.

“Community members in Normal are stopped by police more often, but aggression by police officers is higher in Bloomington,” Palecek said.

“This might be due to different policing styles between the police departments of Normal and Bloomington. Community members and leaders in our focus groups were especially concerned about the aggressiveness from the Bloomington police department. This especially affects our Black American community." she said.

The inequalities that exist between whites in the community and people of color are due in part to enduring social dominance practices that exist throughout America, said Danielle Stevens, another of the researchers.

“We build a hierarchy where there is a small group of people who end up with power,” Stevens said.

In Bloomington-Normal, that power structure is largely white and well-to-do.

“Power structures are perpetuated by what we call legitimizing myths. These are the myths we believe to be true whether they are or not,” Stevens said. As long the same power structures remain, it is difficult to overthrow those myths, she added.

Stevens said  “colorism” remains a problem in the Twin Cities, as throughout America. “That is, the darker your skin, the more likely you are to be discriminated against.”

Disparities also exist in quality of life. Neighborhoods that are poorer and more diverse, especially in Bloomington, tend to be close to industrial areas and face additional environmental drawbacks. Some are located near the county landfill or the Bloomington-Normal Waste Water treatment plant that processes sewage.

“Odor, air and noise pollution” are common problems, said Teddy Dondanville, another of the ISU researchers.

In Bloomington, Dondanville said, “The waste water treatment plant is good example, but we also have railroad tracks down there and a cargo plant. In Normal, we have the Bridgestone tire plant." 

Housing is another issue. “Affordable housing is hard to come by in Bloomington-Normal,” Palecek said. “Some housing might be affordable, but the quality is very low or the landlords exploit their tenants."

Dondanville said food accessibility, especially access to high quality fresh meat, fruits and vegetables is also a problem in many poorer neighborhoods. He described some neighborhoods as classic “food deserts," primarily in south and southwest Bloomington.

“There are some food deserts in Normal, but many of them are in higher income areas,” he said,  where residents have the financial means to use private transportation to get fresh, high quality food.

The Stevenson Center has reported previously on racial disparities in the McLean County jail population, and its latest report reinforces those findings.

Whites comprise more than 80 percent of the population, but only 50 percent of jail population. Blacks comprise 36 percent of the jail population, though they are about eight percent of the total population.

African Americans spend nearly twice as long in the county jail as whites -- 14 days compared to eight for whites. Latinos also spend more time in jail, but less than African Americans.

The disparity might reflect the seriousness of the charges for which the different groups are booked, Stevens said, as well as differences in legal representation.

Palecek said many members of the community suggested the two cities seek “new and innovative ways” to deal with these disparities.

To address police and criminal justice issues, some recommended a new community entity to monitor police actions.

“Police are investigating themselves and that doesn’t create a lot of incentive to carry out a well-organized analysis, so a community group that helps out with these investigations can be useful,” Palecek said.

The researchers also looked at the progress of the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

“Things for the LGBTQ community have definitely improved over time, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Stevens said.

She said transgender residents complain of mistreatment by the police. There are also fewer medical services available for the transgender people here than in other, larger cities.

The disabled were also included in the study. “So often the disabled are left out of the discussion,” Palecek said. “That needs to change.”

“Disabled community members are not incapable of working, learning or understanding or doing anything. They need provisions and these should be provided. They are intelligent members of the community,” Palecek added.

“We found that people in management very often don’t want to work with the disabled to include them in their operation," she said.

Transportation was another area of concern. Public transportation, while widely available, can be time-consuming, Dandonville said. “Transferring buses can take 45 minute,” he said.

Many residents said they wanted to see more pick up and drop offs points, and more affordable fares.

Residents also had a recommendation for building community spirit: more street festivals that celebration diversity in the Twin Cities. 

The Stevenson Center turned over the results of its study to members of Not In Our Town Tuesday evening at ISU's Bone Student Center. Not In Our Town leaders said they will examine the results to determine next steps forward.

Editor's Note: This post was editing to include audio of the interview with Stevenson Center researchers.

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