Black legislators were right to talk about race

Some Indiana House Republicans lost their cool last week when Democratic colleagues dared to raise the issue of race. According to the Indianapolis Star, the Republican legislators “shouted down and booed Black lawmakers during floor debate on a bill that some see as discriminatory.”

Rep. Greg Porter (House Democratic Caucus).

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, became emotional and walked off the House floor when Republicans interrupted his attempt to speak, the Star reported. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, began talking about his own experiences with racism and “was met with ‘boos’ from several … GOP lawmakers.”

But Porter and Smith were right. Lawmakers were debating House Bill 1367, which would allow Greene Township in St. Joseph County to secede from South Bend Community Schools and join John Glenn School Corp. Greene Township’s population is 98% white, according to census data, while nearly three-fourths of South Bend students are Black, Hispanic or multiracial. John Glenn’s enrollment is 90% white and less than 1% Black. How can you debate a bill like that and not talk about race?

According to the Star, the conflict in the House spilled into the hallway, where a confrontation erupted between Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis. Eberhart said Summers called him a racist. She said Eberhart “just went off and got mad and tried to hit me.”

Eberhart told the Star, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

But bones aren’t at issue; and, actually, neither are hearts. It doesn’t matter if Republicans aren’t stereotypical racists who hate Black people. Their actions are what matter. When legislators promote laws that make schools more segregated, their actions should be scrutinized.

The same should apply to Indiana’s state-sanctioned open enrollment policy, in which families may transfer their children from the school district where they live to another, provided there’s room. The policy accounts for about half the “school choice” in the state. In theory, it lets parents choose the public school that best fits their children’s needs, as long as they can provide transportation. In practice, families are leaving racially diverse urban schools for mostly white suburban or rural districts.

Muncie Community Schools, for example, where 57% of students are white, lose nearly a quarter of their prospective students through inter-district transfers. Many go to nearby districts where over 90% of students are white. Figures are similar for Marion Community Schools, where 48% of students are white and many leave for districts that are 80% or more white.

Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, the author of HB 1367, said it has nothing to do with race but would address transportation concerns for Greene Township students, 274 of whom already attend John Glenn schools. The bill sets up a “pilot project” and applies only to one township and two school districts. But Teshka acknowledged there is interest in similar district secessions in other parts of the state.

The House approved the bill, 53-42. If the Senate follows suit, it could open the door to redrawing district boundaries in ways that make many districts more racially segregated. That policy decision shouldn’t happen without debate, and Black legislators shouldn’t be on their own in forcing it.