Civil Rights commissioners hear testimony on discrimination in Alaska

Posted: Friday, August 24, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said a hearing on racism in Alaska varied from what commissioners usually hear.

In most states, said Cruz Reynoso, a former associate justice of the California Supreme Court, public officials tell them one story and victims of discrimination tell them another.

''It's as if we're listening to two different communities,'' Reynoso said.

But all who testified Thursday morning agreed that much work remains in eliminating discrimination.

''The public officials and the appointed officials, including the governor and the attorney general and the associate justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, have basically agreed with the community and religious representatives,'' Reynoso said during the first of two days of hearings.

Alaska Native leaders called for commission hearings after a drive-by paintball shooting incident in January that targeted Alaska Natives in Anchorage.

The Rev. William Greene, pastor of Eagle River Missionary Baptist Church, called the assault one of the greatest things to happen in Alaska because it brought attention to discrimination that minorities have complained about for years.

''We're here because we've had our heads buried in the sand,'' Greene said.

The commission's 12-member Alaska advisory committee conducted the meeting. The commission's job is to collect facts on discrimination and make recommendations, Reynoso said.

''If we can bring them to light, at least we're down the road to making a difference,'' Reynoso said.

Gov. Tony Knowles ticked off a list of successes with the hiring of minorities in state government but acknowledged a public school funding formula that gives rural districts a lower percentage of dollars for new enrollment and a continued backlog of repair needs in village schools.

''The gap between urban and rural education is not narrowing,'' he said.

Both Knowles and Alaska Supreme Court Justice Robert Eastaugh pointed to a high incarceration rate for Alaska Natives -- 37 percent of the prison population, nearly three times the percentage in the general population -- as indicative of a problem in the criminal justice system.

Knowles said repeated calls for alcohol prevention and treatment programs have gone unanswered.

Eastaugh said an Alaska Judicial Council study pointed out the numbers but did not reach conclusions as to why.

Among the possibilities, Eastaugh said: Moving rural prisoners into communities where they are more likely to commit parole violations, resulting in more jail time; language difficulties; and a culture not suited to fight accusations in the American judicial system. A judicial council study hopes to have answers in about a year, Eastaugh said.

Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said the state has blind spots regarding issues important to Native Alaskans.

The existence of tribes and their desire to govern themselves, rural subsistence hunting and fishing needs, high Native suicide rates and unsolved assaults on Native women are issues most Alaskans would rather shove to the sidelines, Kitka said.

''We believe that a process of dehumanizing has been going on in this state,'' she said.

Janie Leask, a former AFN president, said business leaders in Anchorage and Fairbanks have changed their opinions on the need for rural hunting and fishing rights, electric power subsidies and sewer and water systems once they see conditions in rural villages.

''I believe the divide is primarily due to ignorance and apathy,'' she said.

The Rev. Greene said the state is taking steps backward in the recruiting of minority teachers. And he noted that the only adult in the paintball incident, who has pleaded no contest to three counts of misdemeanor assault for videotaping the incident, remains free pending sentencing.

''The perpetrator has not served one day,'' Greene said. ''If it had been a minority, he would go to jail first and get the facts later.''

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