Philip Amerson, May 2023
The Ecology of Racial Discrimination
“I was afraid I might be shot walking from my car into the building.” These were the words of a friend, a denominational leader. He was speaking of work while his office was at Central Avenue UMC in the 1990s.
In recent years I assumed there were few surprises left for me after more than fifty years as a pastor in my particular Protestant denomination. I was wrong.
It was a casual conversation, but a stunning one. My friend’s almost off-hand comment opened a new vista into what I had failed to see those three decades earlier. He was speaking of when his office was in the Central Avenue Church years before. Still, the fear lingered in his voice.
I have written about the decline and closing of the Central Avenue in earlier posts. In the mid-1980s, I joined others in proposing some denominational offices be moved to the unsued space at Central Avenue. Our assumption was it would benefit urban ministry across the state. It would signal and solidify a commitment to valuing of city churches. Surely, if denominational offices and mission activities were located in the core-city, it would guarantee more support and an awareness, a commitment, to city ministry. In an amazing set of circumstances, in that decade, even Governor, Frank O’Bannon, and his wife Judy, United Methodists themselves, chose to live nearby and associate with Central Avenue. They were advocates for urban revitalization.
Still, something was awry. My assumption in hindsight was fool hearty. There was an insufficiency in vision. Locating offices in that building didn’t have the effect we had hoped. Central Avenue officially closed in 1999. The building needed significant repairs. The worshipping congregation was down to only thirty members. Ultimately the grand old structure was given over to Indiana Landmarks and extensive refurbishment was carried out.[i]
What did we fail to understand when it was thought that locating some denominational offices in that place would be a difference maker? Something more basic, more at the core of things, was at play. Offices might be centered in a building, but fear and a lack of a shared vocational clarity as to city ministry overwhelmed the best of intentions.
Earlier I posed the question, why? Why did so many urban parishes seem to evaporate or vanish over the past half century? Central Avenue is representative. In fact, it had more advantages than many others. The many parishes that vanished faced a tsunami of urban change. Long deferred building maintenance and the costs of repairs played a significant role. It will be argued later that an inadequate sense of theological clarity and sense of connection between the congregation and a shifting neighborhood population was a contributor to this decline.
Too few neighbors found a home at the church. Few persons were willing to drive from more distant neighborhoods back into the core-city. There was insufficient interest, skill or insight in re-establishing this as a viable parish. Other factors contributed to this demise (secularization, smaller families, alternative faith communities nearby); even so, I have come to the belief that, at the core, there are two fundamental issues which offer the clearest explanation. These are:
a) the social and political ecology of embedded racism; and
b) Ineffectual denominational and congregational responses lacking in theological clarity.
A Look at the Embedded Racism in Urban Ecologies
My friend who spoke of being afraid of being shot walking between his office and the car was not someone who would fit the label of a racist. Over his career he spoke against racial discrimination. Yet, the fear he experienced belied something deeper, something far more problematic.
Racism is about more than individual attitudes or behaviors. It is embedded in perceptions and expectations. Even more, it is interwoven in the political and economic systems in which we all participate. After speaking of “being afraid of being shot” he went on to say, “I couldn’t invite persons to come to the building for meetings, especially in the evenings, out of concern for their safety. On more than one occasion I heard gunshots near the building.”
As these words were spoken, I thought of the dozen or so United Methodist congregations nearby, several within a couple of miles. I thought of the dozens of churches, around the city and in urban neighborhoods across the state, that were in more “dangerous” settings (with higher crime statistics or gang activity).
Fear is a powerful force in shaping what we see and how we behave. Comments like “we must go to where the people are” or “I couldn’t invite people here” are not intended to carry racist freight on the surface – but they are marioneted in a broadly assumed and unspoken racist gestalt. In truth, in nearby churches congregants gathered in more crime ridden neighborhoods, day-and-night, to carry on their ministries.[ii]
There was a failure to consider a wider array of options than an exit strategy. The resulting reality was a benign neglect of most core-city parishes. The “left behind” congregations were undervalued as to their potential.
There are many factors that underlie WHY neighborhoods changed and parishes slowly vanished. Realities and patterns vary from congregation-to-congregation, city-to-city, and neighborhood-to-neighborhood. Even so, when one considers the common ingredients surrounding neighborhoods that were abandoned and where parish life was ignored, fear of the other (of the stranger) is always present.
Our nation’s history is that of a restless citizenry, moving from place to place, job to job, home to home.[iii] This mobility is assisted by the capitalistic assumptions that social status and a better life can be purchased by a move to a more respected place.
There is a lengthly list of contributors to transitions in urban neighborhoods like those surrounding Central Avenue Church. This recent research on the dynamic of urbanization singles out racist structures as far and away the critical explanatory and discriminatory component. Racism serves as what social scientists call an “independent variable.”
There are now scores of research reports, mostly from the past decade, that document the extent of racial inequity. It permeated our social and economic ecology. It was manifest in the building of interstate highways,[iv] the decline of newspapers and local media,[v] real estate speculation and housing practices,[vi] shopping malls and big-box retail,[vii] employment,[viii] education,[ix] taxation,[x] law enforcement,[xi] urban development,[xii] and, this all reinforced by patterns of governance and political control in cities.[xiii]
To illustrate, here is a quick review of the first factor above, the building of interstate highway systems. It is clear systemic racism shaped the urban landscape. A pervasive, and decades long, reality can be seen in the destroying and/or dividing neighborhoods based on race. The interstate highway system begun in the mid-1950s, and even earlier the parkways built by planners like New York’s Robert Moses, intentionally divided neighborhoods by race and social class.[xiv] In the process it was nearly always the Black and Brown neighborhoods that were destroyed or “isolated off.”
Today the former Central Avenue church building is only a few yards from I-65 as it loops through the middle sections of the city; and, barely two blocks away is another barrier as I-70 separates off heading east. The now gentrified Near Northside neighborhood is, thus, walled off from other, historically poorer neighborhoods in Indianapolis.[xv]
Robert Bullard in 2004 documented how the Interstate Highway System was blatantly and, in most cases, effectively utilized as a tool of “transportation racism”.[xvi] Bullard speaks of the power of transportation inequity. Poorer neighborhoods suffered the consequences that included: isolated poverty detached from needed services, environmental hazards, loss of neighborhood centers (including churches), excessive noise and more difficult access to shopping, parks, entertainment, and other amenities. Bullard posits that “transportation planning has duplicated the discrimination used by other racist government institutions and private entities to maintain white privilege”.[xvii]
Thus, by the 1970s, in Indianapolis, the building of interstate highways, the establishment of Unigov (bringing together city and county government), the desegregation of schools and taxation policies were powerful reinforces of an often-covert racism. It was a racism that was deeply embedded in urban planning activities and in the souls of well-meaning but fearful citizens, even church leaders. It is little wonder that congregations like Central Avenue were in trouble. It is a story deeply embedded in racial fear. But the story is even more nuanced, more complex.
If racism was a primary cause, the response to this time of transition and the vanishing of parishes by the denominations was also due to largely ineffectual and misguided practices. We turn to this in the next posting. There is more. There are words of hope offered by two other questions beyond the “why?” In future we will also ask about the “what if?” and “why not?” options before us.
[i] More information on the renovation of Central Avenue and transition to the Centrum by Indiana Landmarks can be found at: https://savingplaces.org/stories/nineteenth-century-church-receives-enlightened-renovation-indiana-landmarks-center
[ii] I was serving as one of the pastors at Broadway United Methodist under two miles north of Central Avenue from 1986 to 1992. Yes, there were gun shots heard and even violent exchanges on that parking lot; however, the lay people, who lived near and far away, and the nearby neighbors were beginning to forge bonds of cooperation and respect. It was hard won – and was filled with the challenges of mistrust and paternalistic behaviors.
[iii] Frederick Jackson Turner had hypothesized all the way back in 1893 that the American Spirit was one of always moving into a new frontier. Turner spoke of the idea of an exceptionalism that sought to “win against the wilderness.” Mobility came naturally to the settlement and resettlement of our cities.
[iv] Bullard, R. D. (2004). The anatomy of transportation racism. Bullard, R., Johnson, G., & Torres, A. (Eds.). Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
[v] There is a clear and growing research on the decline in civic engagement as related to the decline of a local press. See for example Madeline Price, “No Longer Black and White and Read All Over: How the Disappearance of America’s Local News Threatens Our Democracy,” Democratic Erosion, February 13, 2022.
[vi] Rothstein, Richard and Leah, Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law, Liveright Publishers, 2023.
[vii] Dunlap, Michelle, Retail Racism: Shopping While Black and Brown in America, Rowman and Littlefield, 2021. See also: Drost, Philip, “How Malls and Freeways helped segregate America, CBC Radio, June 26, 2022; and, Young, Michael and Peter Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London, The Free Press, 1957. This remarkable early study of two communities. The decline in civic engagement and community involvement anticipated the losses of parish awareness ahead for places where suburban development was underway. undermining the viability of neighborhood shops and shopping.
[viii] Wilson, Valerie and William Darity Jr., Understanding black-white disparities in labor market outcomes requires models that account for persistent discrimination and unequal bargaining power, Economic Policy Institute, March 25, 2022.
[ix] Ramsey, Sonya, The Troubled History of American Education after the Brown Decision, The American Historian, March 2021.
[x] Davis, Carl and Wiehe, Meg, Taxes and Racial Equity: An Overview of State and Local Policy Impacts, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, , March 31, 2021. See: https://itep.org/taxes-and-racial-equity/
[xi] Valentine, Ashish, NPR, July 5, 2020, “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How Race Shaped Americas Roadways and Cities. See: https://www.npr.org/2020/07/05/887386869/how-transportation-racism-shaped-america
[xii] Baker-Smith, Christine, Lourdes German, Samantha Pedrosa and Stacy Richardson, Racial Equity and Municipal Bond Markets, National League of Cities. 2022.
[xiii] “Unigov: Unifying Indianapolis and Marion County,” Digital Civil Rights Museum, accessed May 8, 2023, https://www.digitalresearch.bsu.edu/digitalcivilrightsmuseum/items/show/42.In Indianapolis the dramatic shift in governance came with the adoption of Unigov – a merger of multiple city and county agencies. While presented as a way to streamline the work of overlapping government agencies, the Indiana Conference on Human and Civil Rights also served to dilute and weaken the voice and representation of the poor and black citizens of Indianapolis.
[xiv] Karas, David, “Highway to Inequality: The Disparate Impact of the Interstate Highway System on Poor and Minority Communities in American Cities,” New Visions for Public Affairs, Volume 7, April 2015, pp. 9 – 21. See: https://www.ce.washington.edu/files/pdfs/about/Highway-to-inequity.pdf
[xv] Valentine, Ashish, NPR, July 5, 2020, “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How Race Shaped Americas Roadways and Cities. See: https://www.npr.org/2020/07/05/887386869/how-transportation-racism-shaped-america
[xvi] Bullard, Robert, Op. Cit., p. 15.
[xvii] Bullard, Robert Op. Cit. p. 20.