Are We Racist without the Confederate Flag?

After a white supremacist murdered nine people in a Charleston church, embarrassed Southerners are admitting that it is time to take the racist Confederate flag down in South Carolina.

By Lloyd Omdahl

Defending the flag, an official in the Sons of Confederate Veterans alleged that “slavery ain’t like it was a southern sin. It was a national American sin. It built Wall Street and the American economy.”

With this logic, maybe he couldn’t comprehend that the flag was racist. Remember that we did convince ourselves that slavery was Biblical. It is difficult to measure the level of racism that still prevails in some Southern hearts and minds but before we leap to self-righteous judgment we would be well advised to see if the shoe fits here in North Dakota.

When we first moved to Bismarck in the 1950s, our two best friends were African- Americans. We talked about racism openly with them and they would identify the manifestation of racism they would encounter in the city.

When they planned to build a house, the developer in their part of town circulated a petition in the neighborhood to keep them from building in his area.

Racists in other North Dakota cities exposed themselves when the air bases brought African- Americans to Minot and Grand Forks. There were incidents in bars and restaurants in both of these cities.

In the 1960s, federal officials suggested that Fort Lincoln south of Bismarck would be an ideal site for a Job Corps facility. Everyone in the community and the state government knew that enrollment in Job Corps would consist primarily of African- American youth. A prominent person in the Bismarck community innocently opined that the city was not a good place for such a program because the African- American kids wouldn’t have anyone with whom to associate. I don’t think he knew that his remark smacked of racism.

Those of us in state government at the time abandoned consideration of other site criteria and endorsed the Job Corps because we didn’t want the remark to be taken as the North Dakota mindset. Bigotry isn’t anything new in the United States. Throughout our history, different ethnic groups have been abused by bigotry, most notably Native- Americans, African- Americans and the Irish. This truth doesn’t excuse bigotry but it seems to describe our darker nature. Today, much of it goes unrecognized because it isn’t as visible as a Confederate flag. Governor George Sinner and I shared in chairing the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission and we both know how futile the meetings were because there was never any state money appropriated to meet the smallest need on the reservations. As a consequence, our meetings were repetitive rehashes of unmet needs.

It is true that the federal government has assumed primary responsibility for Indian programming. But that has not stopped Minnesota from supplementing federal efforts. In this recent legislative session, Minnesota recognized a need and appropriated over $20 million to support federal efforts in Indian education. Even though we all know about the sad academic record of Indian students on our reservations, we didn’t think the problem was important enough to fund special efforts to overcome the education gap. We find money to fund remedial classwork for other North Dakota students with summer classes. We now have money – lots of money – but we gave ourselves and the oil industry big tax cuts without a second thought about the more pressing needs being experienced by Native-Americans. Is this because we think everything Native-American is the sole responsibility of the federal government? Or is it because the people involved are Indians? If the shoe fits, we should wear it.

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