Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Sarah Palin admittedly hasn’t had much of a track record when it comes to acknowledging let alone promoting diversity during her short tenure as Alaska governor. She’s on record with a terse utterance on hate crimes legislation and another one on cultural diversity.
During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign she told the Eagle Forum that she opposed expanded hate crime legislation. In her gubernatorial campaign booklet in 2006, Palin gave her equally terse view of discrimination. She simply said that she and her gubernatorial running mate would provide opportunities for all Alaskans. There is no record that Palin has made any other public statements on diversity and minority issues since then. This in itself might be cause for only a slight eyebrow raise.
But Palin’s skimpy track record and paucity of words on diversity is relatively tame compared to the far more damaging accusation that’s making the rounds. On April 29, fourteen Alaska black leaders that included prominent ministers, NAACP officials, and community activists met with Palin to voice their complaint over minority hiring and job opportunities. During the meeting she allegedly said that she didn’t have to hire any blacks. Even more damning, she purportedly said that she didn’t intend to hire any.
This charge is so racially incendiary that it sounded like yet another one of the legion of Palin urban legends that have fueled the cyber gossip mill from the instant Republican presidential contender John McCain plopped her on his ticket. The charge had to be confirmed or denied. If Governor Palin or any other public official flatly said that they had no intention to hire blacks that would be politically unpardonable. And for a potential vice-president it would and should be the kiss of death.
In a phone message to this writer, Megan Stapleton, a Palin spokesperson who works with the McCain-Palin campaign committee, vehemently denied that Palin ever said that she would not hire blacks. Sharon Leighow, a communications spokesperson in the Alaska governor’s office, also disputed the allegation. She said that Palin’s press secretary was part African-American and that two of her senior advisors were Filipino and Korean.
But Leighow was also adamant that Palin did not hire staff persons based on color, but solely on talent and skill. As she put it, “Governor Palin is totally color-blind.”
In a call to this writer, Gwen Alexander, President of the African American Historical Society of Alaska who initially reported Palin’s quip stuck by her contention that Palin made the racially charged retort. She also charged that Palin did not support or even officially acknowledge the group’s annual Juneteenth Commemoration.
June nineteen is celebrated as the date of slave emancipation in Texas. Alaska is one of thirteen states that have designated it an official holiday. Other Alaska governors have sent the traditional greeting and acknowledgement to the Society. Alexander says Palin snubbed the group.
The unofficial charge then is that Palin is insensitive to the state’s African-Americans, and that includes refusing to hire and appoint African-Americans. That charge is hotly disputed by Palin’s staff and they cite names and numbers to back it up. But apart from the veracity of the charge and the denial, Palin’s statement that she’s absolutely color blind when it comes to hiring and appointments does set off warning bells.
The color blind argument strikes to the heart of the continuing debate over what and how far governor’s, indeed all public officials, should go to insure that their staffs and their appointments truly represent the broadest diversity possible. Officials must make a concerted outreach effort to make that happen. Palin’s color blind posture more often than not has been nothing but a convenient excuse not to seek out, and hire and promote African-Americans and other minorities in their administration, no matter how qualified.
Diversity is a major issue this election. It’s implicit in Democratic rival Barack Obama’s White House run. It’s explicit in Ward Connerly’s anti-affirmative initiative on the ballot in three states this November. Obama opposes it. McCain backs it, and so does Palin.
Palin’s commitment to diversity is no small point in Alaska. According to the 2000 Census figures blacks make up officially about four percent of the state population. But those who self-identify at least in part as African-American bump up the percentage much higher. This is not an insignificant number especially when American Indians, Aleuts, Eskimos, and Asians are taken together. Minorities then make up about one quarter of Alaska’s population. This makes the state one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation. Diversity must be more than a word that an Alaska governor pays campaign lip service to and then ignores.
Palin’s campaign and gubernatorial spokespersons say the knock that she is hostile to blacks and minorities is unfair. That may well be true. But to those Alaska black leaders who challenged Palin on her administration’s minority hiring practices, to them the knock is much deserved.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).