The Fifty Nifty United States: Alaska

This is the second (2/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

The state of Alaska has a unique place in the American imagination. Alaska gained statehood in 1959, meaning that many living Americans remember its territorial birthright. The state seems foreign, as Alaskans refer to the continental United States as the "lower forty-eight," or more simply as "down there in America." The state is unlike any other in the country, as its existence is a healthy blend of contradictions. On the one hand, its rugged terrain and distance from the "lower forty-eight" make it a land ripe for libertarian self-sufficiency; on the other hand, the state's reliance on oil revenue to support its citizenry makes it the closest thing the United States has to an intra-country socialist republic.

Where Alaska does resemble the rest of the country, though, is in its inequitable disbursal of criminal justice, which has roots in the racist treatment of Native Americans:

Unlike the South, there has never been much of a African-American population within [Alaska], and therefore no real discrimination against them at the governmental level.  Alaska Natives have been the victims, despite being a majority of the population for much of the pre-statehood period.  Often they were not served by restaurants and movie theaters, or were forced to sit in segregated sections.  Following the grant of US citizenship to native peoples by Congress in 1924, Alaska passed a literacy test law to limit Native voting.  Native rights organizations caused general concern among some whites that natives would take over the state politically.  Schools also remained segregated, with whites attending different schools from natives.

Discrimination against Alaska Natives remains prevalent in the criminal justice system, many Alaskan schools are segregated between Whites and Alaska Natives, and through the 1940s you could find signs on the doors of Alaskan businesses reading, “No dogs, No Natives." According to the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center:

Members of two minority groups, American Indian or Alaska Native and Black or African Americans, were in custody at levels disproportionate to their percentages in the general population. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, American Indians or Alaska Natives comprised about 15–19 percent of Alaska’s general population, and Black or African Americans were 3–5 percent. In contrast, almost 37 percent of the [prison] population in 2014 was American Indian or Alaska Native, and nearly 10 percent was Black or African American.

For eighteen years, four Alaska Native men - Eugene Vent, George Frese, Kevin Pease, and Marvin Roberts - were held in those prisons for a murder they did not commit. In October of 1997, a White Alaskan named John Hartman was beaten to death outside of a wedding reception. The four young men - who came to be known as "The Fairbanks Four" - were taken into custody for the crime. They were released in 2015, after a campaign to prove their innocence, as Newsweek outlined earlier this year:

The Fairbanks Four became a major civil rights cause for many in the state. Don Honea, the ceremonial chief of over 40 villages from interior Alaska, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 2008 that “those boys were railroaded,” and he added that Natives feel like they never get a fair shot from cops and courts in Alaska, where the Native population has faced a long history of discrimination ... At the time of the Hartman murder there was also “a lot of racial tension” between Fairbanks’s poorer and mostly Native neighborhoods, and the rest of the city, says University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism associate professor Brian O’Donoghue ...

The facts of the case are documented in remarkable detail on the blog "Free the Fairbanks Four," and The Daily Beast summarized some of the nastier bits. The prosecutorial misconduct in the case is astounding: the police fed lines to witnesses, there was no physical evidence linking the defendants to the murder, and the prosecutor in the case routinely suggested that defense witnesses were lying to protect their fellow Alaska Natives. A professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks opened an independent investigation of the case in 2001, and after a long series disputing the outcome of the case appeared in the News Miner, a major newspaper in Alaska's interior, The Alaska Innocence Project intervened. At the end of the last year, all four men were released from prison.

The case of The Fairbanks Four demonstrates how longstanding prejudices against Native American populations continue to affect the alleged impartiality of our criminal justice systems. The perpetuation of racism requires degrading the humanity of the oppressed, and the falsely accused men were never presumed innocent. It is both devastating and fascinating to see how the same patterns of oppression that affect Black Americans are reflected in Alaska's treatment of Native populations: decades of violence linked to territorial expansion, followed by statutory discrimination and a criminal justice system unhinged. Just as the Central Park Five continue to serve as a symbol of White America's obsession with the myth of Black criminality, so are The Fairbanks Four symbolic of White America's perpetual oppression of Native Americans.


(Note: In an earlier version of this post I used the terms "Alaska Natives" and "Native Alaskans" interchangeably. I learned that the terms mean different things and have updated the piece accordingly.) 

"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.