Friend of the blog Roger Cornelius lives and works in Rapid City. He knows a thing or two about Indians working hard and succeeding in the face of white colonialism: his Oneida father worked as an engineer for the BIA, while his Lakota mother taught home economics. Cornelius is not happy that Rapid City has elected Steve Allender, whom Cornelius calls “openly racist,” but he does not believe that the attitudes of the mayor-elect or others in Rapid City pose insurmountable barriers to better race relations in our second-largest city.
Cornelius says racism can persist only because “People refuse to learn. People refuse to educate themselves.” People accept simple stereotypes, negative and inaccurate categorizations borrowed from others, instead of looking at a more complicated reality. Cornelius says a growing challenge to racial stereotypes is the increasing diversity of individuals’ racial backgrounds.
Cornelius’s personal history provides an example. He says that in the 1960s and 1970s, he was a typical AIM warrior, hating all whites and all of white culture. Yet he could not square that hate with the knowledge that one of his grandfathers was a white rancher from Interior. When he traveled to Iowa to meet the white side of his grandfather’s family, he was humbled. Those relatives had known about the Indian side of their forebear’s family, but they had never met. The white Iowans were proud to claim kinship with Cornelius. He had spent years saying he hated white people, but he could not say that to or of white people with whom he shared an ancestor. He could not indict all whites without indicting himself. The stereotypes that fueled his hate became unsustainable.
Interestingly, Cornelius says he doesn’t personally experience much racism in Rapid City. He says he deals with his neighbors and city officials courteously, making it hard for them to find an excuse to dismiss him with negative stereotypes. Cornelius says he knows too many genuinely decent white people to brand all of Rapid City as racist. But he knows full well from talking with others and from verbal combat with bigoted commenters in the local press that Rapid City has its racist elements.
Cornelius speculates that some of that racism may stem from Rapid City’s status as a regional hub. Rapid City is the most racially diverse major city in South Dakota. That’s like saying they’re the tallest guy in Munchkinland; Rapid City is still 80.4% white, compared to 85.9% for the state, 86.8% for Sioux Falls, and 91.8% for Aberdeen. Still, almost 20% minority population feels unusually and possibly uncomfortably colorful for folks from Sturgis, Spearfish, and Belle Fourche, which all have less than 7% minority populations. Bring those folks and their even whiter rangeland neighbors to Rapid City for shopping or a hockey game, and they respond poorly to having to deal with real people who don’t look like them rather than the stereotypes that go less challenged in their more homogenous hometowns.
Yet even on that count, Cornelius has hope that Rapid City can fight stereotypes and racism. He cites the example of a Native gal he knows who was cashiering at a big retailer in town. A white customer from north of the Black Hills came through her aisle with a big purchase. When she finished ringing up the purchase, the Native cashier asked the white female customer if she wanted some help hauling the purchase out to her car. The customer turned to her white companion and commented with vulgarity on the number of Indians in the store.
Perhaps to Rapid City’s credit, the cashier told Roger that was the first time she’d ever experienced such direct racism. Doing her job, offering extra service, and being confronted with a crude comment about the number of Indians around caught the Native cashier completely off guard.
Not caught off guard was a coworker in earshot who immediately notified a manager. The manager came out to the cashier’s counter before the customer left and asked for her receipt. The manager voided the purchase, tore up the receipt, and said to the customer, “Don’t ever come back to this store.”
Anecdotes don’t save the republic, but that story gives Cornelius hope that the folks who call Rapid “Racist City” don’t have the full story. The same with demographics: we can’t wait around for more mixed marriages and multiracial children realizing the inadequacy of stereotypes to erase racism from a mostly white town built on colonialist treaty violations. But we can build on those trends and anecdotes to bring more Rapid Citians and South Dakotans together in positive interracial relations.