The Talk: What we learned from last night's race-relations panel

Note: video from The Talk is forthcoming, but you can listen to the audio here!

Last night, 255 people from all over Indianapolis came together for a panel discussion on the history and future of race relations in our city. Leading with the question, “Could Indianapolis become the next Ferguson?,” seven panelists representing the press, law enforcement, community development, education, and more (full names and titles listed below) spoke into both the race-related problems and the potential solutions they see for the city. (More information about The Talk and our panelists can be found here).

Each panelist’s opening comments highlighted his or her personal interest in these issues, and helped establish some perspective on the question. Vanderwoude opened by saying that, though “race” is a social construct, it is nevertheless real: we do notice race, we do naturally associate certain qualities with certain races, and we must acknowledge that if we’re to begin dealing with race-related problems. No one is racially “colorblind,” she said, and we shouldn’t try to be.

Lewis-Alexander affirmed the need to learn as much as possible about the communities of our city – to identify their resources, their conditions, their people, their houses. And while a community’s unique demographic data are important, she said, we only truly learn a community by being in it and among its people.

Pulliam used the phrase “the day of small things” to talk about the importance of long-term, personal investment in individuals: small investments can tend to lead to long-term healing and development.

Cane and Smith both emphasized the importance of helping communities become more politically active and engaged. An engaged community can hold its institutions accountable, Cane said; Smith affirmed that having more people register to vote tends to create a cycle of engagement that ties the people and their policymakers more tightly together.

Major theme 1: Engagement

Engagement was one of the major themes of the discussion on how to see the potential tensions addressed. Waters differentiated between an “old way” of police presence – in which the police’s sole role is to swoop in and deal with problems – and a “new way” in which the police try to become public partners with neighborhoods and neighborhood institutions. He specifically mentioned working with a Latino community on the east side to develop a crime watch partnership, that they might see neighborhoods become safer and prevent gang activity. Likewise, Cane described her role as not primarily prosecuting possible criminals, but educating communities on laws and the legal system.

Lewis-Alexander talked about the importance of being in the communities where we want to build relationships: walking their streets, listening to their concerns, letting them know we’re with them. Smith shared about a program piloted at Arsenal Tech to engage students through basketball and mentor them through it: in five years, the program grew from engaging 13 students to 122. Seeing students engaged – not only in sports, but in other extracurricular activities as well – can lead to community development and health, he said.

Smith also condemned the mutual apathy that can grow in both underserved communities and in people’s view of those communities. If an individual or a community feels powerless to see their circumstances changed, they’ll be less likely to trust institutions and more likely to react unhealthily when put under pressure. And if the rest of the city writes off those communities, the problem will only become worse. From both sides, it’s vital to make efforts to reach out to others.

Major theme 2: Generosity

A second major theme of the night was generosity. Most people, Lewis-Alexander noted, tend to approach conversations about race primarily asking what others will give; but we need to come asking first what we can give. An attitude of giving rather than demanding can go a long way toward reconciliation.

Ware affirmed that the generosity of institutions outside the community can be helpful; but he specially praised institutions and individuals who listened for what kind of generosity the community really needed rather than swooping in with their own ideas. Cane and Waters also emphasized that the more people saw the justice system giving to them rather than taking from them, the more they were likely to trust it.

And a form of generosity – being charitable toward others – is extremely important in how we talk about race. Vanderwoude said we should be willing to call out uncharitable speech toward other races when we hear it – we can call it out in a spirit of charity, but should do so nonetheless. And panelists urged that we do all we can to speak charitably of others online and do what we can to avoid uncharitable speech.

Major theme 3: Relationships

More than anything else, the panelists emphasized building relationships across communities as the most important way to defuse potential tensions. “There is a problem of trust,” Ware said; authentic relationships can establish trust.

The best forms of institutional engagement – crime watch organizations, town hall meetings, basketball programs – all have relationship-building as their goal. Waters described the aim of “new way” policing as helping people come to know the police as “one of us,” not “against us” (as well as holding the police accountable for the same).

But most importantly, the panelists said, we need to seek personal relationships with people who are different from us. Vanderwoude put it most pointedly: if we say we love everyone, she said, who do we have into our homes? She challenged listeners to look at where they put their actual relational energy. Only as we’re willing to take the time to build friendships with people different from us will we see the social fabric of our city knit together more tightly.

Soma pastor Brandon Shields closed by saying that we need a better imagination for the social, economic, and cultural good of our city – that Christians in particular should reject the incomplete scripts floating around our world and write a richer story about what flourishing means and how we can flourish. He summarized his takeaways from the discussion as:

  1. Check ourselves: we need to ask if we’ve been complicit in racial tension in our city
  2. Challenge: we should speak out against injustice
  3. Celebrate: we should affirm the good things that do happen in our community
  4. Create: we should work to make new things for the good of our communities
  5. Connection: we should work to build authentic relationships across cultural lines

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(Moderator) Douglas Hariston – Outreach Minister, Mt. Zion Baptist Church
Tara Vanderwoude – Social Worker, Educator
Gina Lewis-Alexander – Executive Director, Oasis Christian CDC
Russell Pulliam – Director, Pulliam Fellowship of the Indianapolis Star
Charles Ware – President, Crossroads Bible College
Nakeina Cane – Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, Marion County
James Waters – Assistant Chief of Police, IMPD
Jamal Smith – Athletic Director, Indianapolis Public Schools