Anchorage, we have an opportunity to do some soul searching.
Don Smith is a grandfather who is running for a position on the Anchorage School Board. Last Thursday, he answered some questions which, when broadcast by the media, shocked many who no longer live in the racial reality his statements originate from.
If you have not heard Smith’s words, we will get to them in a minute. First, let’s acknowledge that he helped build Anchorage. He first provided public service in 1967, when Dr. King was alive. He served on the Assembly from 1975 – 1985. Think Ford, Carter and Reagan. Last, we elected him to the Anchorage School Board from 2010 – 2013. He has some pull; otherwise, this would not be news.
Unfortunately, the 24-hour news cycle is brutal, even on a 75-year-old man. In rapid fashion The Mudflats, Anchorage Daily News, and Alaska Dispatch helped distribute Smith’s words. The video from Alaska Public Media’s interview series, “Running,” even reached the Washington Post. Comments in reaction expressed shock and anger.
In defense of the reporter conducting the interview, Daysha Eaton, Smith was asked a question rooted in school performance, not race or nationality. It was a question appropriate for a person who wants to directly affect school policy.
Daysha Eaton: “During the past five years we’ve seen the graduation rate just kind of inching up, and this year it went up a little bit too. Dropout rates are down just slightly. This is huge in a place that’s had big problems with this. What do you attribute those positive changes to, and do you think we can keep those going?”
Smith did not answer the question.
Don Smith: “There’s lots of problems that have been caused by organizations like the State Department that have somehow convinced Alaskans or Anchorage residents to accept two families a month from Africa and Indonesia, totally unable to speak English, and give us the responsibility to try to educate these kids in the school system.
When I was in Anchorage High School, it was about 98 percent white students, and the balance were probably Native and one or two black students in the school. Today we’re 48 percent white, 52 percent other, and that clearly is causing problems. I think our numbers are dropping because we’re importing all these people that aren’t up to the standards that we had set for the school. And consequently it’s drawing us downward, not upward.”
Some members of the public have judged Smith to be racist. His views are racist, unmistakably. But, let’s pause in applying judgement. Let’s employ the public education afforded us.
Smith is a piece of living American history. He came of age in 1957, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining traction. During his formative years, the clash between races resulted in supreme violence. Lynching was common practice at the time when he went to high school. Can you imagine the jokes and pranks he might have played that are now socially unacceptable?
By 1985 or so, Smith’s mind had likely stretched about as far as it is ever going to stretch in one lifetime.
I submit the radical idea that instead of pointing fingers at Smith, we should point them at ourselves. We are the ones making this a story, through expressions of our outrage. I sadly agree, and then reflectively acknowledge, he is no more racist than we all are willing to admit. For this brief moment in time, he is providing us a mirror, and we do not like what we see. So, instead of accepting the reflection, we call it ugly and throw our emotion back upon Smith, who candidly brought it to our attention.
Yet, can we take pause and accept the blessing before us? I think our reaction is based more on how we choose to perceive ourselves, rather than the honesty displayed by Smith. Our generation elected the first Black President of the United States of America – twice. We know that we have consciously participated in the turning of a crucial corner in American history that previous generations never entertained was possible. Don Smith is 75 years old! He’s got more in common with Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan than you and I. Why are we holding him to our standards? Because he wants us to cosign his views by electing him to office, and we cannot stomach the idea. Not nowadays.
Racism is a function of power and control. You must exercise power over another human being. As a political candidate, Smith is no threat to you or me. As an individual, he cannot effectively deny anyone access to food, clothing or shelter. Election to the school board grants him a platform and opportunity to implement some of his ideas. The other members can block him, like they did the first time he was elected.
Remember, Anchorage: this is not the first time we have dealt with Smith – and our children survived.
His statements generate shock because they are rooted in the racist tradition of America. We, the upcoming generation can see it plain. But, Smith cannot. And, we do not like to be reminded how close racism really is. It is not some monster we can kill. It comes gift-wrapped as family love.
Smith comes from a time period where education was seen as the means to Americanize everyone. It was the great leveling force of the nation. Whether rich or poor, ethnic or mainstream, all were equal inside the classroom. The teacher spoke one language, English, which is Alaska’s official language. (Bet you didn’t know that!) By demanding everyone, no matter where you were from, speak English, it leveled the playing field.
After language, other American-centric things were learned. Like wearing blue jeans, singing rock and roll or being able to create an “other” out of a fellow human being.
Almost 100 languages are spoken inside Anchorage School District hallways. Why do we expect that to make sense to Smith? If two students and their parents speak a language other than English, all he would see is a good teacher attempting to complete an unnecessarily burdensome task.
What is wrong with demanding American schools teach their subjects in English? That seems like a reasonable request. The fact that this sentiment received so much controversy has got to confuse someone almost 80 years old.
On Tuesday, voters will make a decision. In many ways, that decision speaks to our character just as much as his.