Black leaders in Indianapolis are frustrated.

The number of black residents living in poverty—more than one in four—has risen, not dropped, this decade. And it’s more than double the rate of whites.

Median household income—at $32,000—is slightly higher than in 2010, but the gap between the income level for black households and those of white households has grown.

The unemployment rate for black individuals has also improved, but at 14% it’s about four times the statewide rate and more than double the rate for whites in Marion County.

And while education attainment in the city is up for blacks age 25 and older, the rate for whites is double what it is for blacks.

“The numbers are abysmal,” said Tony Alexander, assistant pastor at Purpose of Life Ministries. “For us to be a great city, that has to be addressed. We can’t continue to have a blind eye to that.”

That’s why a broad coalition of faith-based groups, black elected officials and civic leaders are turning to this year’s mayoral race as an avenue for bold discussions about these problems.

They don’t blame Democratic incumbent Mayor Joe Hogsett for the situation—many of these problems existed long before he became mayor after the 2015 election. But some black leaders ask why they haven’t seen more progress during Hogsett’s first term in office and question whether a second term would be any more productive.

And they say they were surprised and disappointed when Hogsett said he would not be proposing a “black agenda”—a term coined within the African American community—that would outline specific policy ideas and goals to improve the lives of black Marion County residents.

Hogsett and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Jim Merritt, were asked in late August after an IBJ/Indy Chamber debate whether their campaigns would create a black agenda. While Hogsett said no, Merritt said yes.

“I think it’s very, very important that we address this,” Merritt said at that time. “The achievement gap between the two students—the black student and the white student—is an incredible worry of mine. The disparity and poverty is frightening.”

Merritt has yet to release a black agenda but has continued to say he’s working on one and that it will be announced soon.

Hogsett said his overall agenda is inclusive and beneficial for minorities, so he doesn’t need a specific black agenda.

“My agenda is an African American agenda, but it’s an agenda for all of Indianapolis, as well,” Hogsett said. “That’s my philosophy, and if that’s unacceptable to people, then I’m sorry for that.”

The Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis—one of several groups leading the push for a black agenda—met with Merritt and Hogsett in early September to present data on the disparities between white and black city residents and suggested the candidates use that information to build their own black agendas.

Merritt is returning to present his ideas to the group on Oct. 15.

When asked by IBJ on Sept. 27, Hogsett said he had not schduled a meeting with the group and suggested it was up to the organization to invite him back. In the days that followed, Hogsett confirmed with the Concerned Clery of Indianapolis that he would meet with the organization Oct. 21.

That could help his relationship with black leaders, who have not been pleased so far.

“He’s definitely at risk for losing support,” said David Greene, pastor at Purpose of Life Ministries and president of the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis. “People are frustrated with the same old, same old.

“I believe it will definitely impact his political career.”

But will it impact this race? That might be unlikely, even though some estimate that black voters make up about half of the Democratic base in Marion County.

In an August poll for Indy Politics by Mason Strategies, Hogsett was leading Merritt 55% to 27%. Libertarian Doug McNaughton had 4%, with about 15% undecided.

Third-largest city

Black residents account for only 28% of Indianapolis’ population. But that portion still equals 244,000 residents—a group larger than the entire population of every other Indiana city except Fort Wayne.

“Black Indianapolis, if you were to look at us as a population, we would be the third-largest city in the state,” said Marshawn Wolley, director of community engagement and strategic initiatives at the Indiana University Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “This is a pretty big group having a lot of economic challenges.”

That’s part of the reason black leaders say an agenda specific to their community is necessary. But it’s also because they know certain problems disproportionately affect black residents.

For example, 28% of blacks in Marion County are living in poverty, compared to 13% of whites and 20% of the county overall.

“We have people living in Third World conditions in the city of Indianapolis,” said Democrat Vernon Brown, who is Warren Township trustee and vice president of the Marion County Black Elected Officials Association. “There’s those that have and those that don’t have in Indianapolis.”

And without a targeted approach, black leaders say they worry no progress will be made.

“If you’re going to address the problem, somebody has to be intentional,” Greene said. “We understand things are not going to get better if there’s no focus on the area. We can’t wish our problems away.”

Plus, black leaders argue that, if city officials made a concentrated effort to improve the lives of black residents, the move would actually benefit the entire city.

For example, if the crime rate goes down, that’s a win for everyone. Or if more black students receive a quality education, that leads to more qualified job candidates, which some businesses struggle to attract.

“It’s an opportunity to not only impact the black community, but it also has implications for the larger community,” Wolley said.

‘Our community is vast’

But even among those who say Indianapolis should have a black agenda, opinions differ on what it should include and who should create such a proposal.

Some of the common issues listed by black leaders include education, crime, housing and unemployment. Others have expressed concerns about food deserts, lack of access to health care and infant mortality rates.

Greene said his version of a black agenda starts with economics: Grow the number of minority-owned businesses, which often hire minorities as employees.

He said that can lead to blacks having access to better health care and earning a livable wage, which means they can afford to buy healthy food and are less motivated to commit crimes.

“We won’t address the public safety issue if we don’t address the economic issue and ultimately the education issue,” Greene said. “When one domino falls, all dominoes fall.”

Wolley has specifically advocated for re-establishing the Indianapolis Commission on African American Males, which existed under prior administrations, to draw more attention to these issues and provide city oversight.

Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, a Republican political commentator, recently published his own black agenda that suggested implementing harsher penalties for crimes committed in low-income areas, requiring education as part of probation sentences and increasing opportunities for school choice and post-secondary education.

His agenda also addressed infrastructure, attainable housing and entrepreneurial development, and he said he’d welcome the campaigns to use any of his ideas.

“If you see an idea that you think will work for the city, go ahead and take it,” Shabazz said.

Dana Black, deputy chairwoman for engagement for the Indiana Democratic Party, said Indianapolis should have a black agenda but it should originate from black leadership.

“I’m not interested in hearing two white guys tell me what we need to do in the black community,” Black said. “Our community is vast.”

She said at this point, there isn’t enough time before next month’s municipal election to create a comprehensive agenda, but it’s something black community groups should keep discussing.

“Coming up with a black agenda doesn’t happen overnight,” Black said.

But others say that if crafting an agenda is left up to community organizations, city government might not take as much action, and it could be hard to get the various parties to agree.

Wolley said each mayoral candidate could take the components of different groups’ agendas and decide what fits his vision.

“There’s going to be multiple agendas,” he said. “The black community is not monolithic.”

State Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, said any workable agenda would need to come from the mayor and the City-County Council, because those are the officials with power to create change.

“I know a lot of the African American elected officials feel there should be an agenda specifically to address these issues because there are such disparities,” Shackleford said. “The ultimate power lies within the policy structure and the administrative structure of the city.”

Nothing new

The idea of a black agenda is not new to metropolitan cities.

Multiple cities—including Cincinnati, Chicago and Kansas City, Missouri—have groups created to establish and promote black agendas. In other cities, an existing organization has taken on that responsibility, like the Grassroots Coalition has done in Birmingham, Alabama.

In Indianapolis, the idea has been discussed for years among black elected officials and community groups. Some versions of a black agenda have existed, but not under that name.

The Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, for example, releases its own agenda every year at the Statehouse. During the last legislative session, the agenda included passing a hate crimes law, increasing teacher pay, and studying violent crime and traffic amnesty.

“There’s so many things that we regulate at the state level that there should be a separate agenda for African Americans, because they’re so heavily affected,” said Shackleford, who chairs the caucus.

The concept has also made it into the 2020 presidential race. South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who has struggled to win support from black voters, released his version of a black agenda in July.

Known as the Douglass Plan, his proposal calls for creating Health Equity Zones, increasing federal resources for Title I schools, adding $25 billion in support for historically black colleges, eliminating mandatory sentences for criminals and providing more support for minority-owned businesses, to name some specifics.

“Pete Buttigieg has a black agenda, so why can’t Joe Hogsett?” said Brown, the Warren Township trustee, who describes Hogsett as a friend.

Hogsett in hot water?

Hogsett has earned little praise from black leaders so far for addressing problems facing the black community.

“I don’t see where we’ve made any progress,” said Alexander, from Purpose of Life Ministries. “We’re not seeing any improvements. We’re really not.”

Shabazz said Hogsett has a mixed record, mentioning the Indy Achieves Promise Scholarship, which provides financial aid to low-income students from Marion County who attend IUPUI or Ivy Tech Community College, as one accomplishment. But he said the mayor has lacked success in reducing black violence.

“I have yet to see anything that really moved the needle,” Shabazz said.

Some black leaders say Hogsett has had other accomplishments, including a summer jobs program known as Project Indy, which has helped connect thousands of young people with employers.

“The mayor has done some things,” Brown said. “Do I believe he could do more? I believe he could do more.”

Even Hogsett agrees more work needs to be done, but said he’s made progress.

In addition to the summer jobs program and Indy Achieves, Hogsett touted the return to community-based beat policing so officers can establish relationships with the neighborhoods they are working in, his plan to spend $580,000 on programs to combat food insecurity and a recently announced inclusive-growth strategy that requires companies to pay at least $18 per hour to receive city incentives.

“I’ve been pursuing an African American agenda for four years,” Hogsett said. “I guess I’m willing to stand on my record of accomplishment.”

But Hogsett didn’t—at least initially—agree to participate in an Oct. 3 debate that would have been hosted by the African American Coalition of Indianapolis. Coalition leaders say Merritt’s campaign had agreed to it, but they struggled to get Hogsett’s campaign to respond. As the date drew closer without an agreement from Hogsett, the coalition switched gears.

When asked about it on Sept. 30, Hogsett’s campaign officials told IBJ they were still discussing the idea with the coalition and “currently working to confirm a date for that event.”

By the next day, the coalition said Hogsett and Merritt had both agreed to an Oct. 21 event, though the exact details were still being worked out.

Merritt has tried to capitalize on the ongoing tension, courting black voters by criticizing the administration for not doing enough work with minority- and women-owned businesses and failing on crime and safety measures.

“Simply put, the current administration’s support of minority- and women-owned businesses is abysmal,” Merritt said at a September press conference.

Even though black voters historically back Democrats, that support does not seem guaranteed for Hogsett this year.

“We don’t want anyone thinking, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing and you’re going to maintain our support,’” Alexander said. “That’s really a slap in the face.”

Black leaders say Hogsett’s record might not necessarily push voters to choose Merritt on Election Day, but the mayor’s uninspiring work on black issues could drag turnout levels down, which might hurt Hogsett.

“We think the black vote is definitely going to be important in this election,” Alexander said. “We want both candidates to hear that.”

Black said it’s possible Hogsett will lose some support, but she’ll continue to support him.

“No candidate is perfect,” she said. “I’ll take my chances.”

Hogsett said it’s “disingenuous” for anyone to suggest he hasn’t been talking to leaders in the black community for years to listen to their concerns and try to find ways to solve those problems.

“If they want to assert that this administration has not been fully engaged and doing an enormous amount of work on the issues that they shared with me and that I have listened to them, they just may not be as aware as they need to be [about] the multiplicity of different things that this administration has initiated—not continued—but that this administration has started,” Hogsett said.
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