Marshawn Wolley: Red Line offers hope to residents trying to move up

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Marshawn WolleyIn a city where a child born in the bottom 20% of income distribution only has a 4.8% change of rising to the top 20% of the income distribution, opportunity itself is riding on the Red Line.

I find some irony in the naming of the Red Line giving the legacy of redlining in the black community—the practice where financial institutions limited the ability of black people to move to neighborhoods of their choice.

For much of the 20th century, the local city leadership not only ignored the needs of the black community but also actively implemented formal policies to support a regime of segregation.

In 1926, the city council passed an ordinance restricting the ability of a person of the opposite race to live in a neighborhood inhabited predominantly by another race. This was done even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that a similar ordinance in Louisville was unconstitutional.

Both open housing and the idea of an integrated Indianapolis Public School system was intentionally excluded from Uni-Gov in order to not upset what was then the status quo.

The “deliberate speed” to desegregate public schools via the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision would only begin fully in 1981, in part because of community resistance, but also due to the inability of local elected officials to acquiesce to the landmark Supreme Court order.

If we are truthful, for years mass transit was not fully implemented for fear that some people might have more access to places where others didn’t want them to be.

It was under segregation, and later a fear of “the trouble some might bring,” that communities developed with opportunity unevenly distributed among the neighborhoods throughout Indy and the region.

But today, the Red Line is about creating opportunity.

The location of the line is 30% more diverse than the region as a whole and seemingly strategically located where racially diverse citizens earn about $14,000 less than the area median income.

The initial phase of the Red Line runs along a corridor where 1 in 4 households are below the poverty line. There were about 170,000 jobs located within a quarter mile of the line when it was proposed.

The Red Line has the potential to connect unemployed and underemployed residents to their next opportunity, which means it has the potential to be the most significant social mobility tool the city has launched, perhaps since its late start at school desegregation.

I was initially a reluctant supporter of the Red Line given my love of my car. I was willing to support the measure mostly because I thought others would use it. I still love my car, but when I started asking other people I knew about their thoughts about the project, I learned that folks just wanted a chance to get around the city.

It really connected for me when an older black hourly employee at the Indiana Convention Center told me that she wanted to use the Red Line to get to Broad Ripple—she had never been.

The final details of the project are unfinished and the new lanes and traffic patterns will take some getting used to, with bikes, scooters, pedestrians and cars sharing the road.

But the Red Line is more than about the economics of getting a labor force to work. And while I think this is among the biggest steps this city has made in that regard, its about even more than social mobility.

The Red Line is also about the opportunity to build community—to transcend the legacy of our neighborhoods and connect us to our next opportunity.•


Wolley is a lecturer, columnist and diversity and inclusion consultant. Send comments to

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