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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Smith: The Indianapolis Urban League’s drive for equality

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This week the Indianapolis Urban League (IUL) held its Equal Opportunity Day. The annual event highlights IUL’s role as “the leading voice articulating the need for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Central Indiana Community.” It is also a major fundraiser for the civil rights stalwart. The keynote speaker this year was Dr. James H. Johnson, who teaches strategy and entrepreneurship in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research interests include community and economic development, the effects of demographic changes on the workplace, interethnic minority conflict in advanced industrial societies, poverty and public policy in urban America, and workforce diversity. Johnson has published more than 100 research articles and has co-edited scholarly journals. Currently, he researches strategies to combat hyper-segregation, persistent and concentrated poverty, and gentrification-induced residential and economic dislocation.

I had the privilege to speak with Dr. Johnson ahead of his talk. My first question concerned what he means by “hyper-segregation.” He said that the term refers to communities that are — by design — disproportionately comprised of people of color. Further, more than 40% live below the poverty line. In short, these communities are purposely racially and socioeconomically isolated. Johnson referenced the “paradox of our society,” which he describes as American being “far more racially diverse than in the past and (desirous of) creating economic growth, but on the ground (we are) still highly segregated.”
Hyper-segregation is broader than just housing; our educational system is more racially segregated than it was before the Supreme Court’s historic Brown decision in 1954. Dr. Johnson argues that several forces create and sustain this reality, such as whites having the wealth to purchase better homes and to send their children to private schools — or even to create their own school districts. Another factor is that fertility rates among white Americans are lower than they are for people of color. This is largely because the median age for white Americans is 44, whereas the median age for Latinos is 30. For African Americans it is 35. This disparity also has provided fuel for those who peddle what is now known as “replacement theory.”

Regarding Tucker Carlson’s favorite new boogeyman, Dr. Johnson says, “Replacement theory is the flipside of fear. I always start my talks with this fact: Basic demography is pretty predictable. Five years from now, you’ll be five years older.” In other words, demographics are one determinant of future social, political and economic outcomes. Johnson went on to point out that replacement theory began as something called “Southern Demographic Displacement,” which has birthed from a white nationalist organization called League of the South. This group says that its ultimate goal is to have “a free and independent Southern republic.” They unabashedly argue that everyone who is not white and Christian should be forced to leave “their” region of the country.

In response, Dr. Johnson created a demographic exercise in which he removes all races from the South except for white people. The model demonstrates that the median age in the region would go from 35 to 60. The data also show that roughly 40% of occupations would disappear. Johnson then asks questions like, “If this were to become a reality, what would happen to the SEC in football and basketball given that Black athletes dominate those sports?” (I’m guessing that the Georgia Bulldogs would not have celebrated a college football national championship this past winter.)

Dr. Johnson is not only a scholar; he is also a humanitarian. He says, “I try to put myself in the shoes of the people (who are afraid of changing demographics). I do the math. I’d be scared too.” He went on: “I’m going to gerrymander you, redistrict you, take away your right to vote and do everything I can to suppress you. If you’ve always had your way and someone comes along to threaten that, you’d be upset too. I just think that we’ve got to change the narrative. When it comes to cutting a deal to (grow the economy), those who oppose change will likely make wiser choices. I’m not going to argue with anyone about replacement theory, but if you don’t invest in human capital development, you’re going to lose your shirt in the global marketplace. And many of your congressional districts will go away (due to people leaving).”

If an appeal to people’s hearts doesn’t work, perhaps an appeal to their heads — and their wallets — will.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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