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The slow march towards something better, we hope

Published on 2/11/2023
Numbers are not political. “Data is just data,” said Advi, an economics senior from Oman, who was talking about the course that most impacted her, the Economics of Racial and Gender Discrimination. The data demonstrates clear patterns that systems of law and culture  have significantly impacted the economic health of minorities in the United States.

Everyone knows about slavery. It’s the one-hundred sixty years of systems since emancipation that impacted the Black American minority in our country.  (Can we speak of the other groups? Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and Asian Americans have their own systems to lament.)  
Hardly starting on a happy note for Black History Month, and there’s plenty to celebrate, but in the words of Scott Russell Sanders, “Since I could not forget the wounds to people and planet, could not unlearn the dismal numbers of pollution and population and poverty, I would have to look harder for antidotes, for medicines, for sources of hope.”

Here’s the rub. A lot people haven’t learned enough to remember the wounds, the dismal numbers, the poverty and hurt. Most know that the forty acres and a mule were “a dream deferred?” But what happens to a dream deferred, asked Langston Hughes? Sharecropping as a kind of indentured servitude, the Great Migration as a failed promise. History offered up more: racial covenants, sundown towns, redlining, educational inequality, employee-based healthcare, the historical basis of modern policing, “broken windows” governance, and explicit health biases have all data sets that aren’t political, demonstrate clear trends, and tell stories that add up.
All of these events have a presence in central Indiana. Before 1820, African-Americans traveled with sympathetic Quakers to Indiana and established Lick Creek Settlement. As noted by Indiana’s Forest Service, Jonathan Lindley, the child of a County Wicklow, Ireland immigrants who first settled in Chester County Pennsylvania, was a Quaker with anti-slavery convictions. When his birth state of North Carolina failed him, he abandoned his position in the state’s general assembly and took his business and beliefs, along with eleven free Black American families, to Lick Creek or “Little Africa” east of Paoli but in the Hoosier National Forest. At its height, the Black farmers there owned 2300 acres, larger than IU’s entire campus. 

Yet that story of Indiana as a safe state proved ephemeral. In 1814, Mary Bateman Clark, who came to Indiana enslaved, was supposedly granted her freedom, only to be forced into indentured servitude to Benjamin J. Harrison, then Gen. Washington Johnston. Clark sued for her freedom and won in an appeal to the Supreme Court. Gov. James B Ray told the Indiana Assembly that the influx of Black Americans constituted a “siege” from “known paupers thrown at us from any quarter.” By 1831, Ray had persuaded the Assembly to pass a law that required Black Americans to pay five hundred dollars to register in the state, and leading up to the Civil War, bounty hunters harrassed Black Hoosiers as part of the Fugitive Slave Act. Shortly after the war, the community declined and by the end of the South’s Reconstruction Era, it had disappeared, as Diane Walker detailed in a detailed history in the Limestone Post. 

If you’ve read Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Lick Creek is the last stop one on a fictional account that maps racial attitudes across the South and Indiana. Many who’ve taken Indiana history in school learned it was a Union-sympathizing state, but that view betrays its conflicted culture from its founding and helps explain the obdurate display the Stars and Bars with the flag that symbolized secession and the end of the Union.

In history and story-telling, according to Barry Lane, there is “shrinking a century” or “exploding a moment.” Notice here, that shrinking a century can betray the good people and lost but hopeful stories, the nuance gets lost, but the present narrative comes into focus. In this case, the degrees of separation between Indiana and Nathaniel Bedford Forrest (see the movie Forrest Gump for the short story of Forrest) are about three decades. Forrest’s white sheet terrorism took root in Indiana, as noted by 1920’s journalist H.L. Mencken and became an expected community membership for white people even in areas that did not post signs saying “N****, leave by sundown or else” or pass laws forcing minorities out of counties by sundown. Sociologist James Lowellen’s Sundown Towns details the explosion of these racist practices, which evolved alongside racial covenants for neighborhoods and redlining for bank loans. 

By the 90s, many of us had to read A Raisin the Sun for high school English and it was the first we learned of covenants, codes, and redlining policies, but many Americans didn’t have to read about it. They lived it. All it took was a landlord, a trailer court owner, a home association, or loan officers for this to continue into the 2000s. Other subversive, pernicious practices continue, such as assessing home values differently based on the race of the owners, or neighborhood owners intentionally outbidding Black buyers to prevent them from moving there. The Pew Trusts reported in October 2022 that the US Dept. of Justice settled a number of redlining complaints with lenders in New Jersey, Texas, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. Furthermore, it reported that “74.6% of White households owned their homes, compared with 45.3% of Black households — a gap of more than 29 points. In 1960, the White homeownership rate was 65%, and the Black rate was 38%, a 27-point gap.” Compare that to 2004 when 49% of Black Americans owned their home, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC). 

All of these practices over generations of family have put downstream pressure on Black Americans health: financial, social, physical, and emotional health. Where a person lives - from the neighborhood’s social connectedness to the quality of the structure - plays a huge role in health. We call this a social determinant of health. Where a person is born, grows, lives, works, plays, and worships forms a web. Either it protects and connects, or it traps. 
“For most Americans, homeownership is the largest component of their wealth,” wrote the authors of the 2021 NCRC report. Financial security and assets are connected to lower stress, more educational stability, healthier lifestyles, and access to healthcare. Living without economic security snowballs into crisis upon crisis. Without another kind of web of support that mitigates crises, lives are lost to despair, illness, and addiction. That web if built to protect, could as miraculous in tensile strength as a spider’s.

It takes intentionally analyzing and correcting broken systems that create downstream pressures. We need better housing policy for the low-income as well as the middle class. We need access to affordable healthcare for all, and keep triaging the pressure on the most vulnerable and exposed. As the Basque proverb reads, A thread usually breaks where it is thinnest.

Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case which proves that we really need to remember history, lest we make the same mistake again.

"It cannot be supposed that they intended to secure to them rights, and privileges, and rank, in the new political body throughout the Union, which every one of them denied within the limits of its own dominion. More especially, it cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded them as included in the word citizens, or would have consented to a Constitution which might compel them to receive them in that character from another State. For if they were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety."