Larry Smith

“It’s far from perfect, but at least it’s a start.” That’s my impeccable assessment of state Sen. Jim Merritt’s plan for Indianapolis’ Black population. Merritt, who is a mayoral candidate, calls his plan “An Agenda for the African American Community of Indianapolis.” He produced it in response to concerns from several Black leaders, including those from the African American Coalition of Indianapolis, the Concerned Clergy and the Baptist Ministers Alliance, among others. Both Merritt and incumbent Mayor Joe Hogsett were recently asked whether they had a plan that is specifically designed to improve the lives of our city’s Black residents. Mayor Hogsett has responded that his administration’s plans are inclusive of all citizens, including African Americans. By contrast, Merritt indicated that he was working on a plan that is geared toward our concerns and that he would release it soon. He kept his word. 

Given the state of politics in America in general, and Indiana in particular, it is important to note that Hogsett is a Democrat and that Merritt is a Republican. As I have shared in prior columns, I am a registered Democrat. I have also shared that I — and a growing percentage of Black folks — are increasingly frustrated with the Democratic Party. While I would not describe Mayor Hogsett as a close friend, I know and respect him. I voted for him. I see him at myriad events and always find him to be affable, passionate and caring. However, I believe that he has erred in this instance. The Democratic Party is at serious risk of alienating many African Americans because of its current reticence in addressing the issue of race (and racism) in straightforward and effective ways. We are the party’s most faithful supporters — by far. Failure to address our concerns and to heed our warnings is a grave mistake.

To be clear, I don’t think that there will be a mass exodus of African Americans from the Democratic Party, at least not in the near future. (With all due respect to my Republican friends, #walkaway is scarcely more than a meme. The GOP is simply not an option for the overwhelming majority of us.) Nonetheless, when we choose not to turn out in extraordinarily high numbers for an election, we frequently determine whether the Democratic candidate wins. (Ask Alabama Sen. Doug Jones — or “President” Hillary Clinton.)

Back to Merritt, his plan for African Americans is notable for its brevity; it is also notable simply because it exists. Frankly, this is not the kind of document that we expect from today’s GOP — which is a key reason why so few African Americans are Republicans. In any case, Merritt’s plan lays out many of the challenges that negatively affect most of our city’s Black population. For example: 

“At a glance, our economy seems to be doing well; however, there are populations within Indianapolis that are left behind. The African American community is around 30% of the total population of the city of Indianapolis but accounts for a majority of the unemployment rate. While unemployment rates for white residents remained at 2.9% from Q1 2018 to Q1 2019, African American unemployment in Indiana rose from 4.8% to 9.1% in one year. African American unemployment is three times that of white residents and the unemployment gaps continue to widen in Indianapolis.”

It is sad that many people would be surprised at such an honest assessment regarding the disadvantaged state of African Americans in Indianapolis relative to our white counterparts. Thus, I give Merritt credit for, well, sharing the obvious. But he doesn’t stop there; his plan also proposes specific solutions to the challenges that he identifies. They include steps for addressing the economic disparity vis-à-vis Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs), which don’t receive their fair share of local, state and federal government contracts: 

Proposed Community Solutions Adopted: 

• The Equal Opportunity Advisory Board will host joint information sessions with community stakeholders and organizations on the process for filing claims. 

• The Office of Minority and Women Business Development, community stakeholders and organizations will host quarterly bidder and capacity-building conferences to prepare minority contractors to do business with the city. 

• Identify the ethnic composition within the M/WBE participation categories.

• A prime contractor who fails to comply with M/WBE participation goals would be subject to any or all of the following penalties:  

o suspension of contract;  

o withholding of funds;  

o retraction of contract based on material breach;

o refusal to accept a bid;  

o disqualification of a bidder, contractor, or other business from eligibility for providing goods or services to the City for a period not to exceed 2 years;  

o payment of liquidated damages.  

• Funds received from non-compliance fees will be used to support M/WBE start-ups.

There is no question that the Republican Party has a very long way to go in attempting to increase the percentage of African Americans who feel comfortable voting for its candidates. By failing even to acknowledge that it has a substantial problem with race, this state of affairs is not likely to change. Yet, not all hope is lost. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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