Alaskans need to pay attention to Ferguson, because racism is alive here

On Monday night, a grand jury in Missouri decided to not indict a white police officer on murder charges for the death of a young black man in the Missouri town of Ferguson. This case is similar to the Trayvon Martin case in Florida a couple of years ago, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder.

One of the biggest differences between the two is that the Ferguson case didn't even go to trial. One of the biggest similarities between them is that many folks throughout the country were disappointed, pained and troubled to realize that our justice system is deeply flawed, and that such injustices are a reflection of the deeply ingrained prejudice among those who hold power and privilege in our society.

Consequently, there were protests throughout the country -- from New York to Washington state. But not in Alaska. In fact, one Alaskan commenter on the Alaska Dispatch News story about the Missouri grand jury decision stated "What does this have to do with Alaska? Who cares?"

There are many reasons for why Alaskans may not care much for the "racial happenings" in the Lower 48, but there are two commonly provided ones: The first is that "we are so far away and isolated from Ferguson, and Florida, and the rest of the entire country really," and the second is that "racism is not a problem here." I can't argue against the first, but let's explore the second one a bit more.

After Hawaii, Alaska is the second-most racially or ethnically diverse state in the country. Also, the Anchorage School District is the most linguistically diverse school district in the country, and the top two most racially or ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the U.S. are in Anchorage. This high level of diversity even led some publications (theroot.com) to name Alaska as one of "The Five Best States for Black People" to live in.

But these awesome facts about our state do not mean that racism does not happen here. In fact, it looks like we are just in denial about it. Yes, from Florida to Alaska and everywhere in between (like Missouri), racism is alive and well in 2014. It might be more subtle now than the blatant racism of the past, but it's here. Let me give some examples.

In terms of interpersonal racism, a lot of this comes out in social media. Our fellow Alaskans said things like this about Mike Brown and his family: "They should be disappointed that their son was a thug, made poor choices, and got himself justifiably killed;" "Good, the thug had it coming;" or "The POS thug got what he deserved." Other Alaskans also commented that "Anchorage Police Department needs to hire Wilson now to clean up in Anchorage" and "I too hate and fear the colored race, so bravo for the correct decision." The protests in various states after the Missouri grand jury decision were described as "typical jungle mentality." Another Alaskan commenter stated that "To accurately emulate the late violent-thug-turned-folk hero, they really need some blood on their knuckles." A couple of Alaskans even stated "Shoot all the perps ... why encourage lawlessness?" and "I just seen on the news that the thugs in the streets are looting, and burning stuff again. I hope the cops will have no mercy on these punks this time and do whatever is necessary."


In terms of systemic racism, specifically in our justice system, we see that four Native men can be convicted of murdering a white person with little or weak evidence, but four murder convictions cannot be done for the four white men who brutally murdered a Filipino man even though the entire murder was clearly caught on camera. We see a white woman who was texting while driving hit an Alaska Native man, left him to die, lied to people by saying that she hit a stray dog, and tampered with evidence by deleting the text messages she sent during the hit and run, get only 18 months of jail time. We also see a white teenage boy who took his father's Chevy Tahoe without permission, smoked marijuana while driving, ram into a car carrying an Alaska Native family -- including three young children -- consequently killing the mother, get only one year of jail time with the possibility of early release with good behavior.

In terms of acceptance of racism --- an indicator that racism has been normalized and institutionalized as part of the "culture" -- we need not look further than our lone state representative to the United States Congress. He has a long history of "missteps," including a highly publicized reference to Mexicans as "wetbacks," yet an overwhelming number of Alaskans still elected him to his 22nd term. Of course, many Alaskan netizens also have plenty of other things to say about our Mexican and Latino brothers and sisters given the recent immigration debates, but they're too many to include here.

But the point is clear: interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism is alive and well in Alaska. We can't ignore it, pretend that it doesn't exist, or take comfort in the delusion that it doesn't affect us. We've seen the damages that racism can have on people, families, and communities. Racism is not dead; racism is deadly.

And given that racism today is so subtle, silent, and even invisible to the point that many of us actually believe it doesn't exist anymore, racism has turned into an insidious silent killer. Our community is already suffering with it, perhaps already dying because of it, and we don't even know it.

My fellow Alaskans, let's call it out when we see it, let's examine ourselves and be mindful of our own attitudes and behaviors, and not let modern forms of racism kill our community.

E. J. R. David is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the director of the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology (ANCAP) Program. His work is focused on the psychological experiences of ethnic minority groups. He is the author of two books, "Brown Skin, White Minds" and "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com