“Change might be uncomfortable, but it is the only way forward,” Rep. Robin Shackelford said recently. These words mean a lot to me. They mean a lot because this is the everyday reality for the Black community. It is a narrative consistent with many declarations familiar to us throughout the years, including “A Change is Going to Come,” “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired,” and “Ain’t Going To Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” As we come to the end of Black History Month, we continue to honor Black people’s contribution to history and culture in Indiana and throughout the world. We celebrate these accomplishments as we are determined to dismantle systemic racism in our own backyard.
I believe to my core that advocacy begins with education. Education within our community directed toward the championing of racial justice, civil rights and reproductive freedom. This is a part of our vision and mission and it is also an ongoing challenge. Meeting this challenge will require a recognition of the rights for all people to be heard with respect and consideration. At the very least, we should be able to look to our elected officials to embrace and model these principles. Sadly, it is something that we are failing to see in our own state Capitol.
Recently members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus (IBLC) were shouted down by Republicans during a floor debate. Rep. Greg Porter, a member of the Black Caucus, said a bill was discriminatory because it would allow students to leave South Bend Community Schools, which are racially diverse, to join a more rural school district made up primarily of white students. Rep. Vernon Smith backed Porter in calling the bill discriminatory and reiterated how being a Black man in Indiana had come with a lifetime of discrimination.
The booing behavior was something Shackleford, chair of the IBLC, seemingly attempted to prevent before the legislative session began when she called for the state Speaker of the House to have racial bias training. This type of training, which is utilized by many Fortune 500 companies, has shown compelling results in helping to prevent unconscious bias and build an inclusive culture. Indiana has similar programs available, yet the speaker has not courageously embraced them. We want our legislators to work in a place that is safe, respectful and inclusive. We believe this should be a standard, not just an expectation.
Our state suffers from systematic underinvestment in the Black community — leading to less access to health care and dramatic disparities. This has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic inequality, structural racism and public health failures have all collided and resulted in higher infection and death rates for Black people in Indiana.
In the middle of COVID, we face another health crisis: maternal and infant mortality. Indiana ranks 48th in the nation for maternal mortality, followed only by Georgia and Louisiana. Infant mortality is nearly two times higher for Black infants than for white infants in Indiana.
Shockingly, the Indiana General Assembly continues to ignore the impact of COVID and refuses to improve maternal health. Currently, the supermajority is neglecting to pass a meaningful pregnancy accommodation protection bill for the fourth year in a row, despite bipartisan support for this bill and the governor including it in his priorities. Indiana is one of five states that does not offer state-level protections against pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are waging an all-out attack on reproductive health — House Bill 1577 would pack on medically unnecessary restrictions in an attempt to make it harder to deliver and access abortion care. It passed out of the House and is headed to the Senate. It piles on a laundry list of frivolous restrictions for abortion providers, with the clear intent of making it harder to deliver care, in turn limiting access to patients’ health care. Politics can not be a factor in determining the health care of Indiana citizens. Our elected leaders should instead enact policy solutions to fight the public health crises in Indiana.
I hope you will join me in the months and years ahead in the fight for racial justice and reproductive freedom.
LaKimba DeSadier is Indiana State Director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky.