The South Dakota Advisory Council to the United States Commission on Civil Rights met Friday afternoon in Aberdeen to discuss ‘The Subtle Effects of Racism in South Dakota.”
D.J. Mounga, director of student life at Presentation College, said it can be hard to talk about subtle racism in a state with a history of so much overt racism.
That difficulty perhaps led to the program running over two hours late: I left at a quarter to six, and we still hadn’t heard from the 3:00 and 3:30 p.m. panels, never mind the 4:30 p.m. public testimony. I could say that running the meeting on Indian time was subtle racism against my White/Western sense of mechanical clock supremacy… but (1) I’m racist for even thinking the term “Indian time,” and (2) as SDAC-USCCR member and Rapid City lawyer Charlie Abourezk said in his astute opening remarks, racism is about the dominant race preserving its privilege and control at the expense of other races. The determining feature of racism, said Abourezk, is not prejudice but the superior position of whites and the institutions that maintain that position. No group or institution was trying to control me; the folks in the room were just trying to have a difficult conversation and allow everyone to be heard, regardless of my expectation that a public meeting strictly adhere to linear numbers and words printed in black and white.
How’s that for subtle?
That difficult conversation proved challenging for the Aberdeen Police Department. Asked to discuss how body cameras impact law enforcement interaction with minorities, Chief Dave McNeil and Sergeant Tony Bisbee gave a presentation that seemed designed to avoid any direct discussion of racial issues in local law enforcement. They presented three videos, none from Aberdeen or even, it seemed, from South Dakota. One video mentioned prejudice against Irish and Italians, which seemed laughably irrelevant to how Indians and Hispanics may feel dealing with cops and culture in Aberdeen. The video said police need to explain their actions so subjects don’t wrongly conclude that police are targeting them by race. Two videos of police stops—one taken by a civilian provocateur’s cell phone, not a police camera—showed police-civilian interactions with no apparent racial component. The presentation seemed to revolve more around justifying police action than changing it to check racism.
As a side note, Chief McNeil bragged about Aberdeen’s leadership in recruiting female officers. Advisory council member Scott D. German of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate pointed out that Chief McNeil consistently referred to unspecified police officers in his presentation with masculine pronouns.
How’s that for subtle?
Brandon Sazue, Sr., Chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, said he wholeheartedly supports police use of body cameras. He said body cameras would have changed the outcome of the incident where police tasered an eight-year-old, 70-pound girl on Pine Ridge. The girl had a paring knife in her hand. The girl died from the tasering.
Chairman Sazue then addressed the institutional racism he sees in South Dakota’s response to the pipeline protests on Standing Rock in North Dakota. Sazue said he spent three months at the Dakota Access protest as the leader of his tribe supporting the “water protectors.” He said he was arrested and strip-searched, treatment to which he said no white political leader would be subjected. Sazue said that Governor Dennis Daugaard sent South Dakota Highway Patrol to help put down the protestors and that South Dakota troopers beat tribal members with batons. Then Daugaard pushed Senate Bill 176, the anti-protest bill that Sazue says targets tribal people as troublemakers on the impending construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Sazue said Daugaard has invited tribal members to a meeting on March 29 to discuss pipeline protests, but Sazue says those consultations should have happened before Daugaard drafted SB 176 and before he sent troopers to Standing Rock. Daugaard’s racist actions have prompted Sazue to decline the March 29 invitation and to cancel the groundbreaking agreement his tribe signed with the state in 2013 for cooperation between Crow Creek tribal police and the Highway Patrol. Council member and USD professor Richard Braunstein expressed his dismay: he said he has cited the Crow Creek/SDHP agreement as a great step toward cooperation between the state and the tribes.
So much for subtlety.
Dr. Naomi Ludeman Smith, chair of arts and sciences at Presentation and member of the Aberdeen Area Diversity Coalition, discussed her experience as an “interculturalist” studying Aberdeen and South Dakota since moving here from Minnesota two and a half years ago. She said her first signal of racism in South Dakota came from a Highway Patrol officer who told her not to drive through the reservations at night. Having spent time in conflict zones like the West Bank and Belfast, Smith found that warning absurd. She said the real threat along the highway at night is animals.
Smith called the “Americans First” meeting last August here in Aberdeen “one of the most frightening gatherings of citizens that I have experienced.” She recalled the anger with which fellow citizens responded when she asked the speaker for the sources of his claims about places she has actually visited. She recalled the frightening rage of one Aberdonian at that meeting threatening another resident’s life. (Yeah, I kinda remember that, too.) She said the Diversity Coalition and the rest of us have a lot of work to do.
Rosholt entrepreneur and speaker Lawrence Diggs laid out his argument that race is a “bald-faced lie.” “Racism is not the real problem,” said Diggs. “The belief in race is the real problem.” Diggs said the lie of race is used to manipulate us. “Now you know it, too,” he concluded. “What will we do?”
Braunstein said, “That is a lot to take in,” and noted that the construction of social difference for the gain of certain interests is a valid concern. Then, for the rest of the meeting around for which I was able to stick, the conversation proceeded as it had before, without addressing that concern, dealing with race, social construct or not, as a real factor with real impacts on behavior and policy in South Dakota.
At the beginning of the meeting, Charlie Abourezk said racism is a charged word because we don’t deal with it consciously often enough. We encounter it only when its effects explode into public view, and we deal with it only long enough to quiet things down. The length and breadth of Friday’s conversations reflect the difficulty of the issue. The speeches I heard don’t fit neatly into one package or one tidy conclusion… which was Abourezk’s point. We don’t get to avoid the issue, like the cops. We don’t get to philosophize the issue away, like Diggs. Real people, like Chairman Sazue, are arrested and humiliated and withdraw from useful agreements on principle when faced with racist actions from the highest offices in our land, like Governor Daugaard’s. Like Smith, we live in an intercultural nexus, and we all have work to do.
- In a somewhat testy conclusion to his warm welcoming remarks, Mayor Mike Levsen said Friday’s meeting was not at all about refugees or immigrants. “That question is decided,” said Mayor Levsen. “They’re coming, they’re here, we’re never going to be 98% white again.” The Mayor said people “with nothing else to do” can argue about it.
- Diggs prefaced his philosophical discourse with one political observation: “When your chief strategist is a white supremacist, your chief strategy is white supremacy.”