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The challenges of anti-racism in southern Indiana

The recent racist attack on a Black man in Monroe County propels the classic midwestern college town of Bloomington (home to Indiana University) deeper into the current debate in the US over white supremacy and anti-racism. The incident is still being investigated, but it would appear that on the evening of July 4 several Bloomingtonians, including one Black man, Vauhxx Booker, happened upon a group of intoxicated white revelers who took issue with the group’s presence on what the revelers claimed was private property. Pursuit and verbal abuse led to Booker’s being pinned against a tree while his attackers hurled racial insults and called for a noose. One of the attackers also stepped on Booker’s neck. Interventions by Booker’s friends, mostly verbal appeals it seems, may have prevented his suffereing worse harm than he did. There followed on July 6 a protest, not of course at Lake Monroe but at the central square in Bloomington, that gathered together in particular local Black Lives Matter advocates (as also happened on June 5 in the same generally progressive space). Adding insult to injury, following the protest, a white woman drove into protestors, apparently intentionally, injuring two. The driver then fled the scene.

All of this makes me reflect on anti-racism and its challenges in southern Indiana. I spent most of the first half of my life in a city, Berkeley CA, that considers itself among the most progressive in the US. Berkeley was of course the first city on the US to introduce bussing in order to create integrated schools (in 1968) and has also long been behind a host of progressive causes, from tenants’ rights to opposition to America’s wars to environmentalism. All of that brings with it a degree, sometimes a painful one, of patting oneselves on the back (in which I have just participated). I have been in Bloomington instead for a quarter century now. When I go back to Berkeley and Oakland I am reminded of the region’s rainbow of ethnicity and listen to friends say how they could not live anywhere else (though the combination of housing costs and drought/fire/climate change have made that proposition a bit less attractivein recent years).

Which brings me back to Bloomington and its own struggle to be a progressive outpost in the heart of Trump country; one need only to drive the ten miles or so to Lake Monroe to leave its protective confines. I don’t know Booker and share of course the general outrage at the fact that a Black man cannot safely explore the surrounding countryside in southern Indiana. But is this just business as usual? I have a Black colleague who will not visit nearby Martinsville or Bedford after dark. Nor when I gave him a key to get into my house would he use the back door for fear, even in Bloomington, that he might be mistaken for someone breaking in. Meanwhile Indiana University, as long as I have been here, has had a Black student body hovering around 4 per cent of total students, in spite of the efforts made by the university to recruit more students of color. Similarly IU struggles to recruit and retain faculty of color.

Is it any wonder? When a Black man cannot safely take an evening walk with friends by a nearby lake? Is it any surprise that given the option, most students and faculty of color prefer to go to schools with a higher level of racial diversity in a community characterized by higher levels of racial tolerance (or in any case lower levels of racial intolerance)? But I am not a student or faculty of color. I am a white professor who might think about retirement in a few years. I can attend BLM protests and participate in anti-racism committees, even attempt to steer research in an anti-racist direction, but does that make any difference? Of course it might be tempting to move back to Berkeley, or in any case a more progressive environment than can be found in southern Indiana. And other (white) colleagues of mine express the conflict they experience living in so fervently Red a state. Having spent over half of my adult life in Bloomington, I do wonder at that conflict. Would Indiana be better off without me (or them)? I hope maybe that is not the case and that white anti-racists will continue to make their voices heard, in southern Indiana as everywhere else.

July 7, 2020

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