Dec. 19, 2001 Alaska Newspapers Inc. on reaction to Tolerance Commission conclusions

Posted: Wednesday, December 26, 2001

The problem with Alaska politicians is they question motives before they applaud results.

To wit: Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, should have praised the governor's Tolerance Commission report. It's a historic document that offers solutions to the state's social ills.

Instead, Kelly charged that the commission was set up to paint the Legislature as racist.

And Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, claimed that the commission had turned an important issue into a political agenda.

What a shame. The two lawmakers missed a great opportunity for leadership. They took an instrument of social change and used it like a weapon. Instead of finding merit in the commission's cause, they ripped open the urban-rural divide.

Based on five months of public hearings in seven cities across the state, the report is a rare plea from the silent and underprivileged. It shines a light on Alaska's dark corners of discrimination, illuminating the challenges faced by the homeless, the handicapped, minorities and senior citizens.

Released earlier this month, the report issues a somber drumbeat of figures from an unjust world. Blacks and Natives make up 20 percent of the state, but 49 percent of its prisoners. Natives are 8 percent of the Anchorage population, 41 percent of the homeless. Minorities are 31 percent of the state, but less than 11 percent of its teachers.

The list goes on. But to every problem the commission offers a solution. To be sure, many are utopian. With our state facing a billion dollar shortfall, an Office of the Ombudsman just isn't going to happen. Neither is a permanent Tolerance Commission with staff support.

But attitudes are free, and they can be shaped by leaders at no extra cost. That's where Kelly, Bunde and the rest of their ilk fail us.

An Alaska history requirement for high school students? Hate crime legislation? A vote on rural subsistence rights?

They all cost nothing, and they all would help mend the urban-rural divide. Better yet, they would make Alaska a nationally recognized flashpoint for social change. Like it once was. In 1946, Alaska led the nation by passing the first anti-discrimination law.

We can get there again. We can lead the world in celebrating diversity. All that's needed is a change in laws, and a change in leadership. ------

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