Blogs > Jim Loewen > Mitch Daniels: Friend or Foe to Academic Freedom?

Jan 21, 2013

Mitch Daniels: Friend or Foe to Academic Freedom?

On January 18, 2013, Michael Gerson, formerly George W. Bush’s speechwriter, wrote an op-ed bemoaning Mitch Daniels’s retirement from politics. He called Daniels “arguably the most ambitious, effective conservative governor in America” and was proud that Daniels had decreased state government by 6,800 jobs, ended mandatory union dues, and privatized a toll road. “Daniels is just the sort of leader most needed in a Republican revival,” Gerson proclaimed. He concluded, in sorrow, “The best Democratic politician in America is about to take his oath as president of the United States. The best Republican politician will soon be president of Purdue.”

From personal experience, here’s another side to Mitch Daniels.

In November, 2007, I was scheduled to go on a week-long speaking tour of the Midwest: flying to Kansas City, speaking there; driving to Missouri, speaking and doing research there; driving to Springfield, IL, and speaking there; and finishing by driving to Indianapolis. There, I was addressing the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. In addition, the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, a state agency, impressed with my research and writing about “sundown towns,” had coordinated three additional events: a talk in their office about “sundown towns” coordinated with Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI) and a talk and workshop at Ball State U. in nearby Muncie.

Sundown towns, you may know, are communities that for decades were (and some still are) all-white on purpose.

The day I was to leave, I got a distraught phone call from my contact at the Indiana Civil Rights Commission telling me that she had had to cancel all three events they had coordinated. I asked why and got a confused answer, part of which was, almost no interest was expressed in the event at her office. I doubted this reason and managed, in the hour before leaving for my flight to Kansas City, to reach people at IUPUI and Ball State and re-establish all three events, of course without the participation of the Civil Rights Commission. While traveling, I found that the Civil Rights Commission had also canceled my hotel room, but I managed to rebook it.

Later I learned, definitively, that lack of interest had nothing to do with the cancellation. In July 2006, I had written a short article, “Honda’s All-American Sundown Town,” posted on the History News Network. It noted that Honda had recently chosen Greensburg, Indiana, as the site for its new factory. Like many towns in Indiana, Greensburg was a sundown town. Indeed, probably every town and county in Indiana that has a color in its name – from Brown County and Brownsberg to Vermillion County, White County, and of course Whitestown – kept out African Americans. Using colored names was not a secret code for sundown towns, as some African Americans long suspected; it was simply coincidental; a majority of all towns in the state were sundown, including all those with color in their names.

In 1906, Greensburg’s white residents drove out most of its black population. By 1960, the entire county, which had boasted 164 African American residents in 1890, was down to just three, all female. In the 2000 census, Greensburg still had only two black or interracial households among 10,260 residents. My article noted, “While Honda was choosing its site, its executives had to have noticed the racial composition of Greensburg and Decatur County.” I went on to ask, whether Honda chose Greensburg despite or because of its racial past. (Honda has a reputation for avoiding black workers, perhaps believing they are likely too pro-union.)

This article proceeded to stir up a minor hornet’s nest in Indiana. On July 11, 2006, Mike Leonard wrote an article about it in the Bloomington Herald Times and in the process asked the mayor of Greensburg, Frank Manus, whether it was a sundown town. By my memory, Manus replied, “Well, I’ve heard that it was, but I’ve also heard there’s an Easter bunny.” He went on to note, “We have several colored people who live in the city.” His antiquated terminology, typical of sundown towns, caused the Bloomington paper to make his sentence a “quote of the week,” and the story got picked up by other newspapers, including the Fort Wayne Frost. Eventually it reached the publisher of Greensburg’s newspaper, Pete VanBaalen, who has a black son. He met with the mayor and said he was offended by his terminology. The mayor did not apologize, so VanBaalen wrote an editorial about the matter on July 22. In reply, one long-term resident commented,

“People are complaining about Frank using the term ‘Colored People’?! At least he didn't make the comment about what the signs on the outskirts of town said because I do believe the first word was the ‘N’ word. ‘N, don't let the sun set on your back in Decatur County!’ and it even had a picture of the sun setting! I can remember seeing it with my own 2 eyes.”

Another commenter said police use the term “B.I.G.,” meaning of course “Black In Greensburg,” and get “complaints every time a black person walks down a street.” This all prompted the Indianapolis Star to do a story; they interviewed the mayor, who this time did apologize for “colored people.”

My piece at HNN drew many comments, some critical. Readers correctly pointed out that I had offered no evidence that Honda had chosen Greensburg because of its sundown past. Some were sure it would not ever have done so. One stated, “It's a safe bet [choosing Greensburg] had nothing to do with its racial history.” "Does Honda, as a matter of course, pick areas with small black populations, or is this isolated?" asked another, clearly assuming the latter. In January 2007, an authority, James B. Treece, “industry editor” for Automotive News, weighed in. He noted that Honda indeed did pick areas with small black populations, and on purpose. “In 1988, Honda paid what was then the largest EEOC settlement ever -- $6 million -- over its discriminatory hiring patterns at Honda's Marysville, Ohio, factory. The multimillion-dollar settlement was based on Honda's red-lining of Columbus, Ohio, and its minority residents.” He told how Honda then said it would hire only within a certain radius of its plant, drawing the line to exclude black neighborhoods. “Was it race-based? Absolutely.” He also cited a study by two professors at the University of Michigan, Robert E. Cole and Donald R. Deskins Jr., "Racial factors in site location and employment patterns of Japanese auto firms in America," suggesting that “the Japanese,” in the authors’ words, “have a 'taste for discrimination.'”

Landing Honda’s new plant in Indiana had been “a major victory for Gov. Mitch Daniels,” according to the Star. To get it, Indiana coughed up more than $140,000,000 in taxpayer subsidies, according to Roger Bybee. At some point the teapot tempest I had aroused reached the eyes and ears of the governor, or at least his staff. Indiana was not going to help host someone who had attacked Honda! At the instigation of his office, the Civil Rights Commission withdrew my invitations to speak. Apparently Gov. Daniels did not care if Honda was racist. Neither did some commenters on my original article. “Honda exists to make a profit selling cars. It isn't a social welfare agency, which Mr. Loewen thinks it should be,” wrote one. “Honda likely choose [sic] the town because they thought the citizens would make good employees.” To Honda and that writer, blacks might not?

For the record, corporations should care about the communities into which they move and within which they employ. Many do. For example, before Quaker Oats moved into Danville, Illinois, not far from Greensburg, it asked Danville to pass an open housing ordinance, partly so its black employees could be assured they could find places to live. Danville did. Research by Laurie Bassi, Ed Frauenheim, and Dan McMurrer shows that companies that care about “social welfare” actually prosper. So doing good helps them to do well.

The Civil Rights Commission’s claim of lack of interest was belied by a standing-room-only crowd at IUPUI, drawn partly by co-sponsorship from IUPUI's Africana Studies Program. Law School Prof. Florence Roisman introduced me with a five-minute talk about the First Amendment and freedom of speech. Ball State was delighted to re-establish my events on their campus, which were also well-attended.

Is it “personal” of me to take a very different view of Mitch Daniels’s retirement from state or national politics from columnist Gerson? I don’t think so. I think it’s a good thing for Indiana and the United States that Barack Obama, not Mitch Daniels, was re-elected president of the United States. I think it’s a bad thing for Indiana and Purdue that Mitch Daniels has just become president of Purdue. Retaliation for speaking out against injustice is not what we need in higher education or politics.


Copyright James Loewen

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