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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Community activists hold panel on discrimination, reparations in South Bend

In honor of Black History Month, the Accomplice project, sponsored by the Kroc Institute’s Mediation Program, and the Black Lives Matter South Bend chapter hosted a panel Monday to discuss racial discrimination and make a case for reparations in the South Bend. 

The panel featured Oletha Jones, who serves as a trustee on the South Bend School Board; Jorden Giger, co-founder of the South Bend Black Lives Matter chapter; and Regina Williams-Preston, former South Bend Common Councilwoman and member of South Bend Black Lives Matter. Dara-Marie Raggay, co-manager of the Accomplice project, moderated the discussion.

Kathryn Muchnick | The Observer
Panelists discuss discrimination and reparations in South Bend community.

The three panelists focused on the intersecting themes of environmental justice, racism within South Bend schools and discriminatory housing policy.

The discussion revolved around specific policies — past and present — in the South Bend community.

“Local politics rules your life,” Williams-Preston said. “I want you to understand that this is personal.”

Williams-Preston next moved to a call for action.

“South Bend is a small town, and we can really do something here if we have the will.”

Jones began the presentation by discussing education and policing in South Bend schools, an area where she has experience. She traced the roots of modern day discriminatory policies in South Bend schools beginning with the Supreme Court’s mandate to desegregate following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. 

Despite ongoing efforts to rectify educational inequality in South Bend, she said problems persist to this day.

Jones cited a letter that the School Board received in August of 2021 from the Department of Justice that called on them to put a stop to discriminatory policies.

“Our review of this data exposed both long-standing issues and new inconsistencies that severely compromise the corporation’s ability to uniformly implement its calling,” the letter said.

Recently, Jones said she witnessed the “school-to-prison pipeline” after officers were placed in schools. 

“When armed uniformed police officers were placed in schools on a regular basis, we went from a threat of citations being given, to intimidation, to now possible abuse,” Jones said.

Jorden Giger followed Jones, speaking about environmental racism in South Bend.

Specifically, Giger discussed the lead poisoning crisis that was exposed in a 2016 article published by the South Bend Tribune. From 2005 to 2015, 25% of children under the age of five tested had elevated levels of lead in their blood in census Tract 6, a neighborhood on the northwest side of South Bend. About 44% of tested children from neighboring census Tract 19 and about 10% from census Tract 4 also had elevated blood-lead levels. 

“These are census tracts with high concentrations of Black residents,” Giger said. 

Citing Notre Dame professor Heidi Burnett, Giger said it is “unequivocally clear that lead poisoning is a racial justice issue in South Bend.”

Elevated levels of lead in the blood have been linked to increased violent behavior, hyperactivity in youth, damage to the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, behavioral challenges and underperformance in schools.

“If you’ve worked with Black parents who have Black students in South Bend schools, this sounds a lot like how Black children and youth are described when being pushed out of classrooms and thrusted into the school to prison pipeline,” Giger said. “We should ask ourselves if our city is criminalizing folks for being poor, Black and exposed to lead and other harmful contaminants.”

Finally, Williams-Preston discussed discriminatory housing policies in South Bend, including the demolition of thousands of units of affordable housing for the city’s “revitalization” efforts.

“Since the great migration of Black families from the south, current residents of South Bend have amassed story after story of families struggling to acquire and hold on to the American dream of homeownership,” Williams-Preston said.

Specifically, she said the neighborhood around Notre Dame was 99% Black residents at one time before the community undertook efforts to revitalize.

“And guess what? Today, it's 99% white,” she said. “They’ll tell you that everyone who was displaced moved to a beautiful home in other parts of the city. But what we have done is separated neighbors and dispersed a rich community of people to the far corners of the city.”

Williams-Preston emphasized the urgency and nearness of the described oppression and racism.

“Racism and institutional oppression is alive and well in our city government and our education system,” Williams-Preston said. “Real lives are being impacted by these injustices — not 400 years ago, but right now, today.”

Williams-Preston called on Notre Dame students and faculty to vote in their local elections to enact change.

“You have to vote for people who are going to make the decisions that align with our values,” she said.

The article previously incorrectly attributed a quote by Jorden Giger to Oletha Jones and misstated the percentage of children with elevated blood-lead levels in census tracts 6, 19 and 4. The Observer regrets these errors.