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Friday, December 4, 2020

Indianapolis needs to take civil rights more seriously

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Black Indianapolis, like most other large Black populations, faces the prospect of microaggressions, discriminatory action and even outright abuse each day by a variety of institutions including at work, neighborhoods, schools, financial institutions, social service agencies and other public places.

In fact, when Black people show up in economics it’s usually in the form of discrimination in markets, be it labor force, housing, access to capital, etc.

Black economic and social reality include the nearly certain possibility of invidious discrimination at any moment regardless of personal success, comportment or social position.

Right now, if something happened most of us wouldn’t know the first place to go or even the information we would need to file a discrimination complaint. There is also the issue of whether or not complaints are even taken seriously and resolved in a timely fashion.

Of course, entities like the city’s Equal Opportunity Advisory Board or even the state’s Civil Rights Commission will note the limited resources and broad lack of awareness on how to file an actual complaint that stymies their potential impact. They are under-resourced institutions tasked with a big job. To be clear, both our government and private sector, or nonprofit agencies, are doing the best they can in a political environment that hasn’t been as focused as it should’ve been in the past.

We need more from our civil rights entities, including better policies, but for now let’s focus on the infrastructure.

The Equal Opportunity Advisory Commission should have a much larger role in the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy.

People need to know that the organization exists and understand the value of the work this entity can bring to addressing the discriminatory acts Black Indianapolis must endure. We need more capacity within our system for addressing discrimination, which would mean better use of government resources, but perhaps there is more of an opportunity to leverage the private sector as well.

Can we shift our view of the goals of the various boards and commission we have at the city?

Imagine if the board that licensed security firms knew about some of the alleged activities involving Melvin Hall and his company. Even if the allegations are unfounded, an investigation should’ve happened — and it shouldn’t always require citizens to file a complaint.

What if the Metropolitan Development Commission or the Public Works Board or even the Historic Preservation Commission saw in their work the possibility to address invidious discrimination happening to Black people?

A 2018 report from Brookings Institution found that homes in majority-Black neighborhoods were devalued by as much as $18,000 relative to similar homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.

What if the Marion County Assessor’s Office saw the undervaluing of Black homes by local assessors as a clear issue of wealth destruction and acted as an anti-discriminatory agent?  This might mean challenging prevailing norms, but haven’t we already decided we need a new normal?

On some level when we consider the compounding effect of racial injustice, I should hope these entities and others would be open to the prospect of their work including some attention to racial justice moving forward.

City government should also consider outsourcing some enforcement roles with violators paying fixed fees to government and fees to victims of invidious discrimination. Discrimination is really difficult to prove based on the current legal regime, and when there really is only the economic incentive for companies to avoid punishment the scale is tipped.

Government should be incentivized to proactively look for discrimination in the private sector. Fees are one way to do this, but to be clear these fees should not reduce any penalties or settlements a citizen who has suffered from discrimination might be entitled to after an investigation and verdict.   

Outsourcing of anti-discrimination work might look like contracts with nonprofit civil rights organizations for testing for discrimination in employment, housing and financial markets on a regular basis. It might also look like contracts to plaintiff law firms where the city funds initial investigations.

The private sector needs to be engaged more in addressing discrimination. It’s necessary.

Before I get accused of advocating for a “nanny state,” I recognize the limits.

I’d love for MIBOR to somehow get predatory investors to stop the reverse redlining happening in Black neighborhoods. And while I recognize that I don’t have the mechanism to forestall this activity, even if I did, these are still private transactions.

I also think the city prosecutor, not the county prosecutor, has a role to play in this. The city prosecutor might actually be the ideal agency to coordinate city anti-discrimination efforts.

We’ve seen the numbers on housing discrimination produced by the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana investigation, which was funded by the city. I’ve written about what happened in the Payroll Protection Program and Black businesses. We know what’s happening. The city knows what is happening.

I get it. We won’t be able to stop it all, but are we really even trying to stop much now? Now is the time for the implementation of an improved anti-discrimination system in Indianapolis.

Marshawn Wolley is a lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur. Contact him at marshawnwolley@gmail.com.

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