Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska
Designing a Course of Action to Promote Change
Indifference can be tempting, more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid the rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet to the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbors are of no consequence and therefore their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even invisible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
Evidence presented in the Alaska SAC forums reinforced the fact that many lawmakers and other individuals in positions of power are in a state of denial about the existence of civil rights concerns. However, the honesty demonstrated by every policymaker, administrator, and government representative who testified before the SAC was noteworthy and encouraging. Each acknowledged the existence of discrimination and the disheartening perpetuation of racism throughout the state. The governor stated, “Alaska, like the rest of America, is not immune from the scourge of cultural and racial injustice. Concerns about discrimination and intolerance in Alaska are legitimate.”
While this climate of intolerance may be discouraging, it at least sets forth the admission that problems of racism and cultural insensitivity exist in Alaska. Without discounting the many programs and initiatives organized at the state and local levels and among private community organizations, the SAC acknowledges that a few government officials and local activists seek to address some of the concerns presented here. Three such initiatives deserve recognition:
In May 2001, partly inspired by the paintball incident, the governor established the Commission on Tolerance charged with holding hearings to assess racism in Alaska and recommending remedial actions. In December 2001, the Tolerance Commission released a report identifying 40 key findings and presenting nearly 100 recommendations. The SAC supports the recommendations presented in that report and strongly urges the governor to take immediate action to ensure their implementation, including the establishment of timetables and action plans.
In June 2000, the mayor of Anchorage established the “Kitchen Cabinet.” The purpose of the cabinet, which comprises advisors from minority communities, is to keep the mayor informed of issues of importance to the city’s various communities and make suggestions for healing racism in Anchorage. At the time of this report there were 65 members and six special task forces: education; employment and economic development; public safety and criminal justice; housing, health, and social services; community relations; and urban-rural relations. Each task force was assigned to review municipal policies and procedures and develop actionable recommendations. The University of Alaska at Anchorage has assisted the effort by conducting a series of focus groups to measure racial attitudes in Anchorage.
Also in Anchorage, a community group called Bridge Builders has been successful at forming and maintaining cross-cultural relationships among the city’s residents. The group has more than 1,500 members of different cultural and racial backgrounds, representing 53 countries. Its purpose is to forge intercultural friendships and relationships through community service activities, events, and public hearings. According to the organization’s director, the group is “trying to emphasize the positive elements of what diversity can bring to this community . . . and our approach is very simple. It’s on a one-on-one grassroots level where we’re changing people’s attitudes one at a time.”
Promising seeds of resolution have been planted, and the SAC holds firm in its belief that these programs and others like them require a commitment and nurturing if they are to have their intended outcomes. However, despite these initiatives, there is a distinct and festering divide between what officials say has been accomplished and what the people—those who experience racism every day—perceive them to be doing.
A resounding theme echoed throughout both the panels and the public sessions of the SAC forums: action has been too slow. Alaskans voiced frustration with the numerous commissions, task forces, and research studies that have been conducted. They noted that volumes of recommendations have been made but never implemented, and many reports have been issued that merely ended up on a shelf. Perhaps their own words best reflect the call for action:
“[T]here is a lot of goodwill, and there [are] a lot of nice words, there [are] a lot of reports out there, but I think it’s really time that there is action behind the words we hear.”
“There are many people crying here for help, and we need to assist them instead of sitting around in audiences talking about our problems, we need to find solutions and fund the people that are actually out there in the community assisting these people in their quest for justice and equality.”
“I’m grateful that this advisory board is here to hear these things, but the same thing has been said for 27 years. And I think the public is really tired of all these commissions and all these gathering of facts and nothing has ever come about. I think it’s time for action, and I think it’s time for someone to take this matter more seriously.”
“A number of studies completed by state agencies and other groups address these daily inequities, injustices, and discriminations. Frequently it seems as if these reports are filed away and quickly forgotten. Perhaps what lies at the heart of the matter is indifference.”
“How many more reports proclaiming this powerlessness, this hopelessness must we publish? How many more commissions, committees, councils do we have to testify to before we see some results? . . . [W]e cannot simply leave our concerns in the halls of another hotel conference room, nor can we leave them enclosed in a binding of another book. If we are to see equity in law enforcement, then Alaska Native peoples’ attempts to strengthen their communities can no longer be ignored. . . .”
Repeatedly, the SAC heard it stated that eliminating racism must be a community effort, but that there must also be a top-down commitment to political initiative and funding. The challenge lies in reconciling the divide that has emerged between the people and the politics, and translating the power of grassroots efforts into a statewide movement. The SAC believes that there have been earnest efforts on the part of some political leaders, but the momentum must be magnified if racism and its effects are to be eliminated.
Ultimately, the question must be asked whether, as a result of all the meetings and studies, the lives of the subjects, be they the victims of the paintball incident or other Alaskans affected by discrimination, will be improved. This is the standard by which efforts should be judged. Thus, the SAC makes the recommendations in chapter 6 with the hope of effecting real change.
Georgianne Lincoln, senator, Alaska State Senate, statement before the
Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community
forum, Aug. 23, 2001, transcript, p. 176, quoting poet Eli Weisel
(hereafter cited as Aug. 23 transcript).
Tony Knowles, governor of Alaska, written submission to the Alaska Advisory
Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 23, 2001.
George Wuerch, mayor of Anchorage, statement before the Alaska Advisory
Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Aug. 24,
2001, transcript, p. 316 (hereafter cited as Aug. 24 transcript).
Susan Churchill, executive director, Bridge Builders, statement, Aug. 24
transcript, p. 552.
Janie Leask, manager of community relations, Alyeska Pipeline Service
Company, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 86.
Barbara Williams, Alaska resident, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp.
Reverend William Greene, Eagle River Missionary Baptist Church, statement,
Aug. 23 transcript, p. 103.
Georgianne Lincoln, senator, Alaska State Senate, statement, Aug. 23
transcript, pp. 175–76.
 Ibid., p. 188.