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‘Challenging my assumptions’: Holcomb addresses Indiana’s racial disparities

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Editor’s note: Gov. Eric Holcomb sat down with the Recorder for a one-on-one interview immediately after unveiling his equity and inclusion plan for Indiana.

If serving as governor during an unprecedented pandemic wasn’t challenging enough, the other “virus,” as Gov. Eric Holcomb described racism during an Aug. 18 address on equity, has caused him to reevaluate his role as a leader — and as a citizen of Indiana.

“It certainly caused me to kind of reassess my outlook in general,” Holcomb said in an interview with the Recorder. “I always had a very diverse set of close friends.”

Holcomb recalls the first election he ever won — senior class president of Pike High School — where he and his running mate, a Black student, ran as “the mix of ’86.” During his stint in the Navy, he and Bobby “Iron Head” Coleman, a Black man from Philadelphia, did a weekly sports radio show. Despite befriending people from all walks of life and backgrounds, Holcomb said he wasn’t aware of the severity of America’s racial divide until he started having conversations about issues years after they occurred.

“I mean, I knew things like that happened, but now I was hearing it from people I worked with every single day,” Holcomb said. “I’ve never felt so close to people, and yet so far away. … There are so many good people out there that are doing good work and are helping people, but sometimes you’re not aware of the full extent of just how far we have to go.”

It was this realization, along with growing calls from the community to reevaluate policing and health disparities, that led Holcomb to deliver his address on equity and inclusion, which included information on a new position in his cabinet.

For the first time, Indiana will have a chief equity and inclusion officer who will work to increase equity across all state government agencies.

“We want to do more of what’s working and less of what’s not,” Holcomb said. “Our task force realized we needed one person who has authority to help everyone raise their game.”

Along with the creation of the position, Holcomb is excited about the creation of a user-friendly data portal that will allow them to see what programs currently exist to help with job placement and equity, and what programs need support.

While no one has been selected to serve as the chief equity and inclusion officer yet, Holcomb said he’s looking forward to getting someone in the position soon, and the selected individual has to be someone who is “honest, humble and hungry to do good, and who takes a lot of pride in doing something that has needed this focus for centuries.”

Alongside the new cabinet position, Holcomb said he wants to evaluate the training that Indiana State Police (ISP) receive at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), which trains most ISP officers. Holcomb said experts will be evaluating the training and seeing what can be done to implement implicit bias training and modernization, if needed.

“Everyone that I’ve sat down with, and that’s a lot of people because I was challenging my assumptions and starting over almost,” he said, “… I’ve seen that the overwhelming majority of people are doing the right thing. There are bad apples in every walk of life, and you’ve got to deal with those. But we are, and we do.”

Differing from what many grassroots activism groups are calling for when it comes to police reform, Holcomb has no intention of cutting the budget for ISP, and instead calls for more resources.

“We need to make sure that the very folks we count on to keep society’s fabric together and who lay it all on the line for us every day have the resources … to do their jobs so they get to go home at night, too,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb takes pride in the most recent ILEA graduating class, which jumped from 14% minority representation to 28% this year, adding that he and his administration, along with ISP, want to be part of the communities they serve.

Like Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) Chief Randal Taylor, ISP Superintendent Doug Carter believes a focus on community policing would have a beneficial impact on reducing tension between police officers and Indiana’s Black community.

“It’s hard to hate up close,” Carter said. “We own some of this, and we’re not without sin. I’ve said that on a national stage, and I’ll continue to say it. It’s not a popular thing, but I believe it’s right. I really think that if we have those relationships prior to a crisis, we can get through almost anything.”

During a press conference Aug. 13, members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus (IBLC) highlighted several justice reform policies they want to happen, including community policing and taking police officers out of Indiana schools. During the press conference, Rep. Robin Shackleford recounted meetings with Gov. Holcomb relating to the policy agenda, saying he was “polite, but slow to action.”

“Well, I was polite, and I always will be,” Holcomb said with a laugh. “I completely respect and look forward to continuing to work with the legislative branch. … But the not-being-quick-to-act part, we’re in this for the long haul, and we want to be sure we get things right. And there’s a legislative process, and we can’t short circuit that.”

In response to Holcomb’s press conference Aug. 18, the IBLC released the following statement:

“The IBLC is pleased to see the governor taking steps in the right direction to address equity and inclusion in Indiana. We see a lot of similarities between his new proposals and the IBLC justice reform policy agenda. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to working with the governor to execute these initiatives. … Governor Holcomb’s words must be followed by swift action and a good start would be to facilitate much needed support from Republicans in the General Assembly.”

Holcomb said he’s spoken with state legislators across the aisle and believes many of these policy proposals and conversations are bipartisan.

When it comes to closing the racial divide in Indiana, some in the community question Holcomb’s ability to do so, seeing as Holcomb sits on the board of President Donald Trump’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, many demonstrators shared their belief that Trump inflames racial tension with his rhetoric.

“I hope that I’ve given no one concern that I’m anything other than someone who seeks to build bridges and bring people together,” Holcomb said. “Like I said in my remarks today, I want to be a ‘barrier-buster.’ That’s exactly what that workforce council is about.”

Holcomb went on to discuss his passion, workforce development. Through Next Level Jobs, a training program to get more people into the workforce, Holcomb hopes to help “address the root cause [of racism] and not just the symptoms.” The program provides education and training for various sectors and is part of Holcomb’s agenda.

“To see someone take their life from here to here,” Holcomb said, “raising a hand for emphasis, and they not only get a fish but learn how to fish, there’s a pride that comes alongside that.”

Despite discussing race and equity, the COVID-19 pandemic looms over Holcomb’s mind. The virus — statistically — is a race issue.

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, Black Hoosiers make up 11% of COVID-19 cases in Indiana, despite making up only 9.8% of the overall population. In Marion County, Black patients comprise 23% of positive cases.

Holcomb references success in combating the state’s infant and maternal mortality rates — which he says are the lowest since 2012 —  as hope there’s a solution to the disparities in COVID-19 positivity and mortality.

“You have to really challenge the ‘who’ and ‘why?’” Holcomb said. “How do smoking rates, hypertension, diabetes, affect COVID-19? What I’m working really hard on right now is getting a 10-year waiver on our Healthy Indiana plan … to get more people good health care coverage, and I think that’s the key to make sure folks are mindful of improving their health and making sure the state of Indiana has plans to assist in that.”

Holcomb notes there’s a long way ahead — regarding race relations and the pandemic — but he’s hopeful Hoosiers will pull through OK, and more importantly, together.

“We have something kind of special here in Indiana,” Holcomb said. “I don’t take it for granted that folks come together, share honest opinions, and may not agree on all the issues, but we’re a state that others are chasing. I want to continue to keep us out in front.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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