Saturday, September 06, 2008

Todd Palin No Poster Boy for Yup’ik Eskimos or other Native Alaskans

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

There was the ever so fleeting moment during her speech at the Republican National Convention when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin paid tribute to hubby Todd. She lightly mentioned that he’s of Yup’ik Eskimo background. Todd Palin beamed with pride at the acknowledgement in front of the packed convention crowd and in front one of the largest TV audiences to ever watch a candidate’s convention speech. But the cheering convention participants and millions of viewers won’t see the same smiles on scores of other of Palin’s Yup’ik Eskimos and many other Native Alaskans.

They make up nearly 20 percent of Alaska’s population. A devastating report by the Alaska Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2002, “ Racism’s Frontier: The Untold Story of Discrimination and Division in Alaska” painted a picture of decades long economic misery, discrimination, neglect and alienation for Native Alaskans in Palin’s state.

VP candidate Palin boasted that she squeezed the oil and gas industry for billions that have enriched the state’s businesses, residents, and boosted employment in some communities. That prosperity hasn’t touched many Native Alaskans. Overall one fifth of Native Alaskans are below the poverty line. In some rural villages their jobless rate tops 80 percent. Despite sheaths of anti-discrimination laws, and even an affirmative action plan for special needs military veterans, on the books in Alaska, discrimination against Native Alaskans is rampant.

The Alaska Human Rights Commission notes that discrimination complaints jumped more than fifty percent in a seven year period in the late 1990s. Many of those complaints didn’t come from Native Alaskans. Native Alaskan leaders bluntly told civil a civil rights commission community forum in 2001 that they simply didn’t trust the system.

Native Alaskans are more likely to be sicker and have less access to quality, affordable health care than whites. Their infant mortality is more than double that of whites. Their tuberculosis rate is more than twenty times higher than whites. Civil rights commission studies attributed the appalling health statistics to overcrowded and insufficiently ventilated housing, impure water supplies, inadequate waste disposal systems, and general malnutrition.

The racial disparities between Native Alaskans and whites are even more glaring in public education and the criminal justice system. Native Alaskans are slightly more than 12 percent of the state’s public school students. They make up more than one quarter of school drop-outs, and are at rock bottom in their achievement scores in reading and math. Native Alaskans make up a paltry five percent of the teachers and administrators. Many of the students are taught exclusively by white teachers in grossly under-funded rural public schools. Many of the teachers have little understanding of or sensitivity to Aleut, Yup'ik, and Indian culture and language.

Then there are the soaring prison numbers. Native Alaskan males make up less than ten percent of the state’s population, but are nearly forty percent of those behind bars. Despite the outsized disproportionate jail numbers, the civil rights commission found that Native Alaskans are underrepresented in jobs in the child welfare system, legal system, and juvenile justice system.

The criminal justice system disparities are a double edged sword for Native Alaskans. While they are far more likely to be incarcerated than whites, they are also far more likely than whites to suffer rape, domestic violence and homicide. Native Alaskans bitterly complain of laxity by the police and the courts in finding and punishing those who victimize Native Alaskans. Many homicides of Native Alaskans have remained unsolved.

The violence rate against Native Alaskans is so high that some violence prevention experts say that some of the crimes against Native Alaskans could be tagged as hate crimes. Alaska state legislators for a brief time toyed with the idea of enacting a hate crimes law with greater sentencing enhancements. That went nowhere. Even if the legislature had acted, Governor Palin gave a strong hint what its fate would likely be if it landed on her desk. During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign she told the Eagle Forum that she opposed expanded hate crime legislation. She branded all heinous crimes as hate crimes.

State Equal Rights Commission officials have complained that the legislature gutted the commission’s budget and cut staff. Their complaints fell on deaf ears. Despite the well documented widespread discrimination and disparities against Native Alaskans there is no public record that Governor Palin has gone to bat for increased funding for the Commission.

In report on the plight of Native Alaskans, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called for massive increases in spending on job and skills training and programs to boost employment, improve education and public services. The commission called for sweeping reforms in the criminal justice and health care systems. The recommendations were made four years before Palin took office. Other than a brief mention of diversity in her gubernatorial campaign speech in 2006, there is no evidence that Palin has said or done anything about the commission’s recommendations. If she had it would have put a beam on the faces of thousands of Yup’ik Eskimos who aren’t named Todd Palin.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).