Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How Did Racism Become the Topic In The Flag Song Hearing?

Sen. Menard's SB 43 has passed the Senate and was heard last Thursday in State Affairs. Unfortunately, the audio for that hearing is not available on Gavel to Gavel so I can't exactly trace how race got into to the discussion. Basically the bill would officially make the second verse, written in 1987,  part of the Alaska state song.

I believe the first person who testified was in the hearing room, the daughter of the woman who wrote the second verse. The next person was online and she opposed the second verse. I can't say for certainty what she said. I know there was something about taking more time. Without the audio or a transcript, and I didn't take good notes, I can only say that at the end, my sense was that the mention of the word Native in the verse was her main objection. She may have said it explicitly, but I just don't know.

Then others in the room testified for the verse. It was clear that having Natives mentioned in the second verse was important to these witnesses. It was a way of showing respect to the Native peoples of Alaska. But it was just one part of this. A lot had to do with their respect for the white woman who had written the verse before she died.

Then there was an exchange between testifier  Carol A. Treebian and Rep. Gatto. (This is a part of the video below.)

Here are some of the questions/comments that Rep. Gatto raised.  I list them because we don't normally have frank public discussions of race these days.  He discusses his own experiences in diverse New York City.  This was an interesting exchange and I think that Rep. Gatto was asking these questions in all seriousness. 
Gatto: Do you feel racism against, you know, I don’t have racism. I grew up with it,  I didn't like it. Do you feel racism against Natives is different today than it was, say 10, 20, 30 years ago? That there’s more or less?
Gatto:  Are Natives prejudiced against other Natives?

Gatto:  Some of my best friends come from other cultures.  They’re the ones that intrigue me the most.  So I don’t have any bad thoughts about other cultures.  But I don’t, and you’ll see my vote, I’m really not in favor of adding another verse and I want you to know it is not a reflection of an animosity to Natives and I will mention my reason when that time comes.
Gatto: Are we trying to make our state, our country 100% race proof? Or are we willing to say, listen it will never go away. It will simply reach a platform. Some level where it is acceptable. We know that 10% or 20% of the people will forever be racist. And we will never stop it. So are we after the 80% or are we striving for the 100% which we will never get?

This last question really struck me because it echoes a well-known exchange between a legislator and an Alaska Native woman 65 years ago.  It's an exchange one would hope that all of our representatives would know.  It was just over a month ago that we celebrated Elizabeth Peratrovich Day marking the passage of Alaska's first civil rights legislation. 
Asked by Senator Shattuck if she thought the proposed bill would eliminate discrimination, Elizabeth Peratrovich queried in rebuttal, "Do your laws against larceny and even murder prevent those crimes? No law will eliminate crimes but at least you as legislators can assert to the world that you recognize the evil of the present situation and speak your intent to help us overcome discrimination."
[The quote above comes from Alaskool.org's long biography of Elizabeth Peratrovich which covers in detail the debate that day in the legislature in February 1945.  It's fascinating and I highly recommend it. You might want to start at "The Battle."]

From my perspective, it doesn't seem unreasonable that the people whose families have lived in Alaska for as long as ten thousand years might be recognized with a nod in the state song.  But I can also understand that some people might not want any group of people singled out in the state song. I think that is a bit mean spirited, but I could understand the logic.   EXCEPT that the first verse does mention a group of people.  A group of mostly white, and definitely not Native people.
The gold of the early sourdough's dreams
If white fortune hunters, many of whom quickly left, are recognized in verse one of the song, I don't understand why people would object to verse two recognizing the people who have occupied this land for millennia.  I don't get it.  When people in Anchorage objected to renaming 9th Avenue Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, they argued it would mess up the "numerical integrity" of our street system.  But this would actually put some balance from one verse to the other. 

Rep. Gatto said he will explain his objection when the time comes.  The hearing on the bill will continue today, Tuesday March 30, 2010 at 8 am in the House State Affairs committee.

8:00 am   House State Affairs Committee
Capitol 106
Audio stream will be available when the meeting starts.
Overview: Division of Elections
SB43     Second Verse of Alaska's State Song
HB241     Divest Investments in Iran
HB128     Introduction of Measures / Fiscal Notes
HCR8     Uniform Rules: Measure Sponsors / Readings

By the way, Rep. Gatto is the sponsor of the Iran Divestiture bill. 

Other posts mentioning the second verse of the flag song.

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