I was born and grew up in Indiana, graduated from IU and still identify with the term, “Hoosier.” I know Indiana but I do not know, and in fact am sickened by, the right-wing farce it seems to have become.
The state’s appalling “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” quickly revised only four days after its signing by Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mike Pence, weirdly granted not only to actual people, but to corporations and all forms of business, the right to refuse service to anybody on the basis of its (the business’s) religious beliefs. In Indiana, businesses are capable of thought, which can include the choice to espouse various beliefs. Among these beliefs is one insisting that no “Christian” gas station, pharmacy, restaurant, etc. should be forced under law to provide services to people whose personal identities do not meet the approval of the gas station/pharmacy/restaurant’s religion.
Okay, maybe I’ve been gone for too long, but this pathetic nonsense is not the Indiana I carry with me everywhere. In the “real” Indiana there is only one rule – “Do the right thing.” Everybody knows what “the right thing” is, and while it may be done uneasily, quietly, even covertly, it will get done.
Is Indiana racist? Yes and no. Slavery (the enslaved were largely Native Americans and white indentured servants) was constitutionally banned when Indiana became a state in 1816 and the few remaining black slaves of southern settlers were legally freed in 1820, long before the Civil War. Indiana fought for the Union despite, at its southern end where I grew up, its shared border with mostly Confederate Kentucky.
But yes, there was and in places probably still is, racism. Not the Jim Crow sort of the true South, but a queasy, uncomfortable sort that everybody knew was not “the right thing,” but nobody knew quite how to change. The answer was to dress it up and hope that helped.
There had been segregated public schools in Indiana until the practice was legally abolished in 1949, so that by the time I was in grade school I had black classmates. Well, I had one, and his name was Ronnie. His dad was a porter at the train station and my dad knew Ronnie’s dad and thought highly of him.
The schools enforced a rule that demanded a birthday party invitation to every child in the birthday kid’s class. There was no idea of “private” birthday parties. Either everybody was invited or there was no party. And so Ronnie was invited to mine and I to his. Except there was another, silent but zealously observed rule that forbade white and black people from setting foot over each other’s doorsills socially.
And so Ronnie’s mother, dressed to the teeth in hat and gloves, would arrive at our house and hand to my mother a beautifully wrapped gift at my party her son could not attend. But she couldn’t come inside. And for Ronnie’s birthday parties that I could not attend, my mother, also in hat and gloves, would deliver Ronnie’s gift to his mother at their home. But she couldn’t step inside.
It was a fidgety, hybrid racism, although no less cruel for that. And by the time a few hundred kids who’d chafed at the birthday party rule hit high school, it was over. A new black family moved to town, including attractive teenage twins, Jeannie and Joey.
Basketball is a religion in Indiana, and Joey played first string while Jeannie happily taught us all the new dances learned in whatever enviably sophisticated big town they’d come from. So we elected them homecoming king and queen, effectively ending at least one entrenched pattern of racism. The whole town was relieved and the birthday party rule died. Everybody knew it was The Right Thing.
Is Indiana anti-Semitic? Not if anti-Semitism is perceived as The Wrong Thing. All the grade schools had basketball teams, and all the boys (not girls) could play. But in jr. high the only basketball teams were sponsored by the Y. The Young Men’s Christian Association. My classmate Eddie was Jewish, and as a non-Christian he was not allowed to join the Y in order to play basketball. Social death for an Indiana guy!
Eddie was devastated, but the jr. high principal, Tab Tolbert, quickly organized local business owners whose contributions supported the Y (including Eddie’s family) to urge a bit of alteration to the Y’s rules. Eddie was suited up and on court within a week, and a few months later the entire jr. high attended a convocation in celebration of his bar mitzvah. Eddie, in yarmulke and tallit, chanted in Hebrew and everybody cheered as if he were Eddie Cantor.
Hoosiers do the right thing.
Is Indiana homophobic? Again, sort of but not really. Not as long as the “right thing” decorum is maintained. The accountant for my dad’s business and half the businesses in town was gay and everybody knew it. The man was welcomed as a Mason and member of countless civic organizations, He generously supported artistic endeavors and always showed up at diners and functions with a successful woman hospital administrator who may also have been gay. Nobody cared and nobody would have dreamed of refusing to pump gas into their cars on religious principles.
But this was a long time ago. So what’s happened?
Is Indiana full of religious fanatics? It would seem so, although again it’s necessary to look at the root of “doing the right thing.” That “thing” arguably derives from the Golden Rule, often attributed to the figure of Christ although in fact it is an essential tenet in every known religious or ethical system. Hoosiers, as I know them and am, want to treat others as we wish to be treated, and probably were first introduced to the idea in churches.
Lots of churches. Denominational identity was big when I was growing up there, and everybody knew who was Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish or whatever. There was no judgment; it was more a matter of, again, that frenzied need to know the right thing to do. If you invite your Catholic neighbors over for barbecue on Friday, be sure to grill a few catfish filets because they won’t be able to eat the ribs!
But somewhere along the line Indiana seems to have fallen prey to a right-wing creepiness that’s antithetical to both churchly and secular Doing the Right Thing. At least a sufficient number of people with sufficient power have managed to pass a law that makes a laughingstock of my home state and trashes what I know to be its core identity.
Indiana is strange, a relatively unknown place and culture within the larger American one. It’s a jumble of at-times old-fashioned agrarian mores in the south, and old-fashioned immigrant mores in the north, but essentially it’s sort of stalwart. A significant number of Hoosiers may be floundering in a maelstrom world spinning too fast, and for a moment may have grabbed on to the unstable bit of sociological flotsam that is right-wing fundamentalism, but I hope it won’t last.
Because it’s not The Right Thing.