Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska

Chapter 5

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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:

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:

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.

[1] 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).

[2] Tony Knowles, governor of Alaska, written submission to the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Aug. 23, 2001.

[3] 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).

[4] Susan Churchill, executive director, Bridge Builders, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, p. 552.

[5] Janie Leask, manager of community relations, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 86.

[6] Barbara Williams, Alaska resident, statement, Aug. 24 transcript, pp. 541–42.

[7] Reverend William Greene, Eagle River Missionary Baptist Church, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, p. 103.

[8] Georgianne Lincoln, senator, Alaska State Senate, statement, Aug. 23 transcript, pp. 175–76.

[9] Ibid., p. 188.