There’s a Better Way to Defuse Racial Tension and Improve Legislative Debates
Racial Justice and Equity

There’s a Better Way to Defuse Racial Tension and Improve Legislative Debates

Indiana Statehouse
The Indiana state capitol building is located in downtown Indianapolis and was opened in 1878. Photo credit: Fotoguy22

With the brutal killing of George Floyd and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, more state legislatures are debating measures that intersect with how we think about race in society.

Indiana made news recently on this front when its lawmakers were ill-equipped to debate an education bill with racial equity implications.  During the proceedings, some white representatives booed and shouted down Black colleagues and walked out of the House chamber. We believe it is time for Indiana lawmakers to improve their capacity for these types of debates and to adopt tools that can help, including the use of racial impact statements, as other states have already done.

When lawmakers take up a bill, there’s nearly always a “fiscal note” that describes the effects the legislation would have on tax revenues and public expenditures if enacted. Some states go further. Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, and Oregon require racial impact statements  on criminal justice bills. Moreover, several other states, including Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, and Vermont have considered taking this step in recent years.

Racial impact statements typically examine whether a bill’s passage would unfairly penalize people based on whether they are Black, Hispanic, Latino, or Native American. We argue these statements should be expanded to other policy areas and prepared by trained, nonpartisan legislative staffers, in the same way fiscal notes are researched and written. And the training these staffers receive should prepare them to summarize likely results of legislation in ways that spark thoughtful, constructive racial dialogue among legislators.

Such dialogue was sorely missing two weeks ago when the Indiana General Assembly took up a contentious bill affecting schools in South Bend, Indiana’s fourth-largest city. The bill would have allowed a township near South Bend to leave the city school system and join a smaller, mostly white district nearby. The bill’s supporters said many students in the area had already left South Bend’s schools and that allowing the township to separate itself would resolve transportation and other financial issues. (South Bend’s schools enroll a majority Black student population and, since 1981, have been under a federal order requiring racial integration.)

The floor debate was tense as Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, explained the provisions of House Bill 1367 and fielded questions from his colleagues. Black lawmakers objected, warning of possible discriminatory outcomes. When several members recounted their experiences with racism, their stories were met with shameful derision from fellow lawmakers. Some white lawmakers walked out. In response, the Speaker of the House admonished the representatives, calling for decorum and civility, and the Black Legislative Caucus called for racial bias training.

We believe Indiana could have avoided national embarrassment by having a formal process in place for evaluating how legislation might contribute to systemic racism. Regular use of racial impact statements can flag potentially adverse effects before a bill becomes law, giving lawmakers a chance to amend the legislation and minimize harm.

In these racial impact statements, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation recommends addressing issues such as:

  • What adverse effects or unintended consequences could arise from this change in the law? How could these adverse effects be avoided or minimized? 
  • Which racial and ethnic groups could be negatively affected, and why? Alternatively, which racial and ethnic groups stand to benefit?  
  • What positive effects on efforts to achieve racial equity and inclusion might result? 
  • Are there better ways to reduce racial disparities and advance fair and just outcomes? 
  • What changes should be made to ensure movement toward racial equity and inclusion?

In lawmaking bodies that lack nonpartisan staff to do this type of impartial analysis, bill authors and sponsors, lobbyists, and others who are trying to influence the legislation are on their own. This often means the history, racial implications, and effects on communities of color are poorly understood—or worse, ignored.

Lawmakers need the language and the tools to talk about sensitive topics such as race, systemic barriers, and racial biases, including how such barriers and biases exist in most policy choices. Without those tools in place, legislators compromise their ability to resolve problems through political processes.

In this instance, for example, a racial impact statement could have pointed out that using state authority to override local communities without their input historically has been an approach white communities take when seeking to segregate their children from Black students. Such a statement also might have noted that, across the country, this practice has left school districts that were racially diverse more segregated and divided.

In short, if Indiana’s lawmakers worked in an environment where the racial implications of legislation were routinely examined, Black Caucus members’ anger and frustration could have been anticipated, and their white colleagues might have been less dismissive of Black lawmakers’ concerns.

Ultimately, should the South Bend school bill pass, a federal judge will have to rule on it in light of the 1981 consent decree. Regardless of the outcome, though, this ugly incident—coupled with the country’s changing demographics and a shameful legacy of racism, oppression, and discrimination—suggest it’s time for legislators in Indiana and elsewhere to build their capacity to handle intense racial dialogues.

As Americans, we need to build a stronger nation through better understanding. Bias training can make a difference only when people are sincere in their desire to understand and address how their biases influence their beliefs and actions. Preparing racial impact statements and learning how to talk about the findings will be critical for lawmakers—especially those from predominantly white districts—as they seek to legislate from more inclusive perspectives.

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