Politics and race in a Mid-Western city

Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920–1970, by Richard B. Pierce (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005).

pierceMy first direct encounter with structural racism in America occurred in 1961 when I began my thirty-three-year career at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. In earlier years I had lived in the Pacific Northwest and the San Joaquin Valley of California where there was only a small presence of African Americans.

Indianapolis, however, was a different kind of place. One of the first northern cities to develop a significant percentage of black residents, Indianapolis had a mixed record of interaction between the dominant white society and the black population.

My family and I came to the city at a time when the struggle between these two cultural groups was reaching a major climax. We were involved primarily at two points: our decision to buy a house and live in the recently integrated Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, and the determination to have our children attend the assigned public schools, which included Shortridge High School where black students were an approximate two-thirds majority.

Hoping that the city was moving past its racist history, my wife and I participated in organizations and activities that fostered better patterns of interracial relations in the city. With many others, we were ambivalent about Unigov, the 1970 amalgamation of city and county governments that gave increased political and economic power to white, suburban, and conservative Republican voters and effectively constricted efforts of black people who were moving toward equality.

Not until my recent return to Indianapolis after a twenty-one-year, post-retirement sojourn in western America, have I come to understand my earlier years in the city. My teacher has been Richard B. Pierce, Ph.D., who teaches at the University of Notre Dame and specializes in African American, urban, and civil rights areas of study.

His 2005 book, Polite Protest, is a thoroughly researched, sharply focused, lucid, and persuasive analysis of actions by the African American community during an important half century. Black people sought to balance two purposes: preserve the standing and levels of participation that they already enjoyed, which were generally superior to those that blacks experienced in other northern cities; and press for more complete participation in Indianapolis life.

Pierce labels the result “polite protest.” Instead of using aggressive methods, including demands and demonstrations, African American leaders sought to form coalitions with groups, including many white leaders, that would try to negotiate improved relations between the dominant while society and the tightly controlled black citizenry.

Pierce describes this half century (1920–1970) by examining segregation in schools, housing, and employment. He calls attention to the Klan’s ascendancy in Indianapolis during the 1920s and describes the creation of a segregated school system at that time. He explains the processes used to restrict housing opportunities, including the establishing of coalitions, such as the Capitol Avenue Protective Association, that at one time tried to keep the street on which our family later lived free from black incursions.

Inherited racially shaped structures of segregation were part of the ongoing problem. More important, however, were the explicit and on-going racist attitudes and practices with which the white citizenry resisted the polite protests of their black neighbors and co-workers.

The climax was Unigov, a political unification of city and county governments, that built a political fence around the old city that has now endured for nearly half a century.

Although polite is Pierce’s word to describe the tactical approach of black activities in former years, it may also be used to characterize the actions of white people in later years. Instead of aggressive segregation to control the black population, white people especially in the suburban margins could do it with quiet, political containment.

This book helps me understand the cultural world that I lived in for so many years. I am better able to see the structural racism that has shaped everyone’s life and provided continuing privilege to white people. It was easier for me to escape the burdens of serious poverty during my childhood years because I was white than it would have been if I were black. It has been more difficult for me to acknowledge the racism that is part of my inner life. Reading Pierce’s book is helping me do that, too.

America continues to change, as Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson acknowledge in their 2012 book Blacks and Whites in Christian America. Americans of both races may gradually be moving toward a new consensus in which “majorities of both black and white Americans will attribute racial inequality to motivational individualism” rather than to the historical residue of personal and structural racism (p. 206). Polite protest may work better in the future than it has in the past, but there still is hard work to do.

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