Letter: Indiana falls short of living up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy

As the nation observed Martin Luther King Day Jan. 15, Indiana again took its unfortunate place as a bystander when it comes to honoring his legacy. Our state is known more for the legacy of laws tainted by the KKK when it ruled Indiana in the 1920s than for the progressive civil rights laws that took root in the 1960s. We have no real civil rights laws in Indiana. But, there is something you can do about it.

Here is the sad truth that all Hoosiers must admit:

• Under Indiana’s laws there are few civil rights.

• There is no right to a jury trial in a civil rights case, no matter how egregious the conduct.

• There is not even a right to a trial in a state court — no matter how obvious the racial animus.

• There is no right to damages for emotional distress — no matter how emotionally damaging it is to be terminated from your job because of the color of your skin.

• There is no right to punitive damages — no matter how much we want to punish a big or small company for using a racist or sexist slur while firing them.

• Citizens of Indiana are even barred from seeking publicity about an administrative hearing involving racism or sexism. This is surely unconstitutional, but has remained an Indiana law.

All that Indiana has as part of Dr. King’s legacy — and surely he would disown this — is a small administrative agency with three lawyers for the 6 million citizens in this state, and a few streets symbolically named for him in Indiana towns. Sadly, we call the tiny, toothless agency the “Indiana Civil Rights Commission.” This is a misnomer if there ever was one.

No Indiana lawyer pursues civil rights cases at the ICRC unless the case involves an employer with fewer than 15 employees. That is because even the outdated federal civil rights laws — not used in most other states — provide more protection than the paltry civil rights found in the state laws of Indiana. As a real consequence, though, an African-American discriminated against in Marion County must have a trial in federal court with a jury gathered from Kokomo to Terre Haute — not his peers solely in Marion County. And if the employer has fewer than six employees in Indiana, there are no legal protections with respect to a civil rights violation. Indiana simply says: Sorry that you were discriminated against because of the color of your skin, but we allow that in Indiana for employers with six or fewer employees. As someone else might say on Twitter, but not about this issue: Sad!

Indiana is also one of four states with such decrepit state “civil rights laws.” Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas are the only others. How proud is our civil rights legacy in that roll call of states while 46 other states (including many previous slave-owning Southern states) have real civil rights laws? All of our neighbors — Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky — have far more progressive and real civil rights laws than even found under federal law. Yet, these states compete evenly with Indiana for companies. As we found in the RFRA debate, good companies such as Cummins, Lilly and Salesforce want good civil rights laws.

Our state also does less for real civil rights (the color of your skin or biological gender or even of one’s chosen religion) than our state’s laws do to protect those who take their guns to work and those who use tobacco products. If you take your guns, including rifles, to work, or use tobacco, Indiana law protects you far more than if you are black, female or Jewish. Yet, we as Hoosiers are often bemused why diverse individuals who are thoughtful leave our state, or never come here.

So, in recognition of Dr. King, do something for your own legacy, our state’s future, and all of our Hoosier children. Send a copy of this article to the governor, your state senator and your state representative. Here is a website to easily find the email of the governor and your representatives: http://wayeo.egis.39dn.com/.

Kevin Betz, Indianapolis

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