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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Indiana’s racial contract?

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Charles Mills’ philosophical intervention, The Racial Contract, explains why the problems of race in American society cannot be boiled down to the idea that “bad people are racists” and everyone else is good. Instead, Mills challenges us to think of past and present racial discrimination as foundational characteristics of a larger political system. According to Mills, this system of global white supremacy is based on an implicit commitment to white racial dominance. In fact, the history of European conquest in North and South America and colonialization in Asia and Africa flows from a shared understanding and agreement with the belief in European/white superiority over everyone else. Across that history, European nations warred and fought with each other, often over land outside of Europe, but always with the explicit or implicit understanding of their shared superiority over everyone else.

While watching the gubernatorial forum sponsored by the Indianapolis Recorder and Radio One on Sunday, I could not help thinking about Mills’ argument and that even when whites disagreed with each other about politics, economics, or social practices, they routinely agreed to maintain white racial dominance. Consider how the North and South disagreed about slavery in America’s Antebellum Era but commonly shared a belief in white superiority that was clearly reflected in innumerable discriminatory practices in the North and slavery in the South. Indiana, for example, opposed slavery, but it also prohibited Blacks from moving into the state and arrested many who did. Legal historian Paul Finkelman explains this by noting, “Indiana was both antislavery and anti-Black.”

A contrary position would have required Indiana politicians to radically break with the status quo across the state of placing white well-being at the center of public discourse and the well-being of others as a secondary matter. Such radical ideas were rare at the time and still are today. “All lives matter” as a response to “Black lives matter” is an example of framing the issue of police violence against African-Americans as a “universal concept” that places white identity and well-being back at the center. At Sunday’s gubernatorial candidate forum, that kind of framing was a recurring theme. Even when direct questions were posed about racial disparities or racial inequities, with only a few exceptions, the candidates gave answers that ignored race entirely.

Clearly, getting elected in Indiana requires appealing to the sensibilities of white constituencies statewide. It is essential, however, that we recognize and acknowledge how similar that is to past practices in Indiana’s history of appealing to the racial proclivities of the white electorate. In this way, most politicians, across racial groups, stick to the terms of the racial contract — being careful not to challenge the privileges and benefits that America’s white majority has come to expect.

Accordingly, the candidates at the forum differed over school choice, public transportation, environmental protection and other issues, but none expressed a commitment to ending the vast disparities in experiences that African-American and other Hoosiers have in comparison with their white counterparts. The Democratic candidate affirmed the value of Black lives and committed to listening to concerns about racial inequality and then to act to address them if elected. The Republican candidate largely avoided mentioning race before the predominantly African-American audience and spoke in universal terms regarding education and policing and employment. The Libertarian candidate decried police violence against African-Americans and discrimination in school discipline in no uncertain terms but saw no significant role for the government in addressing it. 

With these choices, it is would seem that the status quo racial inequalities in education, housing, criminal justice and employment in Indiana will not be changing anytime soon. If Mills is wrong and there is no implied agreement among Hoosiers to maintain the racial advantages secured from past and current discrimination, you have to wonder why the focus of politicians and the policies they adopt so neatly match the contract terms that Mills proposes.

Regardless, we should also remember from the past that it was far better to live in Indiana with its anti-Black immigration laws than to be enslaved in Mississippi, so elections matter a lot, even when your only option is to choose the least objectionable candidate.

Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

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