Legislating across the racial divide


(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

The Indiana House of Representatives is fraught with racial tension these days, sparked in part by uneasy debate over a school redistricting bill in South Bend that Black members saw as racist and discriminatory. When Black members spoke on the House floor and raised those objections, they were greeted with boos and other disrespectful exhortations from white Republican counterparts, at least one of whom walked out of the chamber rather than listen to their colleagues’ sharp comments.

It didn’t stop there. Confrontations spilled into the halls outside the session meeting room. Angry exchanges and alleged name-calling ensued. Rep. Vernon Smith, a Black Democratic legislator from Gary who had spoken his mind on the issue, said a white male GOP lawmaker — Rep. Alan Morrison of Brazil — followed him into a restroom, berating him in a threatening manner until one of his colleagues pulled him away. That GOP rep is actually a member of the House GOP leadership team.

All this happened on a day Black lawmakers were observing Black History Month by wearing traditional African garb in the General Assembly’s meeting place.

Top House leaders have decried the incidents and are trying to re-establish decorum in their ranks.

Heated debate is to be expected on volatile issues. But disrespect and incivility should never be tolerated.

House lawmakers must try harder to ensure that the state’s legislative business is conducted in a way that all views get a fair and respectful airing, no matter what controversial issue has been raised.

It’s not impossible. Just look at what they did just a few short weeks ago.

Following nationwide protests over police brutality toward minorities in wake of the killing by police of George Floyd last spring in Minneapolis, Black lawmakers in Indiana and elsewhere rallied to propose a long list of reforms aimed at promoting racial justice and improving policing.

Reforms proposed by Indiana’s Black Legislative Caucus made their way into HB 1006, a bill embraced by House Republicans that strives to increase police accountability and enact elements of criminal justice reform.

The bill contains mandatory de-escalation training for police, misdemeanors for officers who turn off body cameras with intent to conceal and bans chokeholds in certain circumstances. It also establishes a procedure for the law enforcement training board to decertify officers who commit misconduct, and ease the sharing of officers’ employment records between police departments, thus helping to identify “bad actors” and keep them from moving from job to job.

What’s more, lawmakers placed $70 million in the bill to help the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy implement the provisions.

The measure not only passed the House with bipartisan support, the vote was unanimous.

The recent racial confrontation among lawmakers represented a serious and sobering moment. It reminds us governing in a diverse society is hard work that demands patience and understanding with those around us, especially if their perspectives and life experiences are different than our own.

But the previous and remarkable success of HB 1006 demonstrates that legislators can do it. They’ve done it before.

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