EDITOR'S NOTE: The original online version of this story, and the version published in Sunday's print newspaper, reported that Palin opposed issuing a proclamation last year endorsing a festival making the freeing of the slaves. The story failed to report that she issued such a proclamation in 2008.
Alaska's black leaders say they're not surprised to see Gov. Sarah Palin at the center of the controversy over injecting the race issue into the presidential campaign.
Palin, Republican John McCain's running mate, has repeatedly insisted that Barack Obama's former preacher, the inflammatory Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a legitimate issue even though McCain himself has said it's out of bounds.
"She has no sensitivity to minorities," said the Rev. Alonzo Patterson, a Baptist minister and president of the Alaska Black Leadership Conference. "She's really inciting a lot of African-Americans to get out and vote."
Since taking office in December 2006, Palin has had a sometimes tense relationship with black leaders, who say they've been ignored in their efforts to get more minorities hired in her administration.
In Alaska, blacks chafed when Palin failed to issue a proclamation last year endorsing a festival that marks the freeing of slaves, though she did issue one this year. On the campaign trail, her events sometimes have attracted fringe groups hostile to minorities. At one rally attended by Palin, a supporter told a black cameraman to "sit down, boy."
This week, in the final debate of the campaign, Obama himself noted the hateful tone of some of the McCain-Palin crowds, singling out Palin herself for not doing enough to ease the friction.
In Alaska, the issue of race relations usually focuses on Alaska Natives, who make up 18 percent of the population. Blacks, in contrast, make up 4 percent.
Patterson and Javis Odom, an Anchorage minister, say that when they've pressed Palin about diversity in hiring, she gets defensive and even testy.
"If you're going to embrace the entire country, you need to address the issues here," said Marilyn Stewart, president of the Alaska Black Chamber of Commerce and a volunteer on Palin's gubernatorial campaign who has served Republican and Democratic governors. "Most certainly there are qualified minorities who would love to be part of her administration. People aren't asking for her selections to be based on color, but because of qualifications."
Among Palin's 417 appointments or reappointments to boards and commissions since taking office in December 2006, 240 have voluntarily identified their ethnicity. Eight are black, 49 Alaska Native, six Asian or Pacific Islander and one is Hispanic.
The Palin administration says her appointments and chief advisers reflect the state's diversity. For example, her communications director, Bill McAllister, is part black. However, her rural affairs coordinator, who is part Japanese, announced her resignation this week, saying an Alaska Native would be a better fit for the position.
McAllister, who was hired in July, said he and others on the governor's personal staff are evidence that she is committed to diversity.
"She's just a warm human being who I think communicates on a deep level, both from a mass media perspective and just a one-on-one perspective," McAllister said. "So it's shocking to me that anyone would imply that she's racist or, you know, neglectful of people of color. I think she's an extraordinary woman and it's disappointing to me that folks would make these charges."
In Palin's only face-to-face meeting with black leaders in 21 months in office, words became terse when the issue of diversity arose, according to several who attended the March 2007 gathering in Anchorage. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell also attended the 45-minute meeting.
Participants say Palin refused to reconsider her decision not to reappoint two black officials -- including Stewart -- from her predecessor's administration.
The implication from Palin was "you can't tell me how to do my job," said Anchorage businessman Mayfield Evans. "Her top lip got really tight. You could tell she was upset, that something was not right."
At one point, Parnell broke in and asked the group if they were accusing Palin of being racist, participants said. Parnell said the group was making "outlandish claims" and added, "I'm not going to let somebody say that about her or me." He said the meeting ended on a positive note with Palin's assurances that minorities have an equal shot at appointments and state contracts.
"In my view, the governor has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that all Alaskans are treated with equal opportunity," Parnell said.
A few weeks after that meeting, Patterson sent a letter to the governor to reiterate the group's concerns and invite her to attend a town hall meeting with black constituents. Patterson said no one from the governor's office has responded.