Courtesy New America Media News Analysis, Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Editorâ€™s note: In a meeting with a group of prominent African-American leaders on April 29, 2008, Alaska governor Sarah Palin allegedly said that she wouldnâ€™t hire blacks in her cabinet or on her staff. This explosive chargeâ€”if trueâ€”would cast serious doubts on Palinâ€™s fitness for the vice-presidency. NAM contributing editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson examines the accuracy of the claim.
Sarah Palin admittedly hasnâ€™t had much of a track record when it comes to acknowledgingâ€”let alone promotingâ€”diversity during her short tenure as Alaska governor. Sheâ€™s on record with a terse utterance on hate crimes legislation and on cultural diversity. But Palinâ€™s skimpy track record and paucity of words on diversity is relatively tame compared to the far more damaging accusation thatâ€™s making the rounds.
On April 29, 14 black leaders in Alaska, including prominent ministers, NAACP officials, and community activists, met with Palin to voice their complaint over minority hiring and job opportunities. During the meeting she allegedly said that she didnâ€™t have to hire any blacks. Even more damning, she purportedly said that she didnâ€™t intend to hire any.
Gwen Alexander, president of the African-American Historical Society of Alaska, initially reported Palinâ€™s quip. This charge is so racially incendiary that it sounded like yet another one of the legion of Palin urban legends that have fueled the cyber gossip mill from the moment Republican presidential contender John McCain put her on his ticket. The charge had to be confirmed or denied. If Governor Palin or any other public official flatly said that they had no intention to hire blacks, that would be politically unpardonable. And for a potential vice-president, it would and should be the kiss of death.
In a phone message to this writer, Megan Stapleton, a Palin spokesperson with the McCain-Palin campaign committee, vehemently denied that Palin ever said that she would not hire blacks. Sharon Leighow, communications spokesperson in the Alaska governorâ€™s office, also disputed the allegation. She said that Palinâ€™s press secretary was part African-American and that two of her senior advisors were Filipino and Korean.
Leighow was also adamant that Palin did not hire staff persons based on color, but solely on talent and skill. As she put it, â€œGovernor Palin is totally color-blind.â€ But in a phone conversation, Gwen Alexander of the African-American Historical Society of Alaska stuck by her contention that Palin made the racially charged retort. She also charged that Palin did not support or even officially acknowledge the groupâ€™s annual Juneteenth Commemoration.
June 19 is celebrated as the date of slave emancipation in Texas. Alaska is one of 13 states that has designated it an official holiday. Other Alaska governors have sent the traditional greetings and acknowledgements to the Society. Alexander says Palin snubbed the group.
The unofficial charge, then, is that Palin is insensitive to the stateâ€™s African Americans, and that includes refusing to hire and appoint African Americans. That charge is hotly disputed by Palinâ€™s staff and they cite names and numbers to back it up. But apart from the veracity of the charge and the denial, Palinâ€™s statement that sheâ€™s absolutely color-blind when it comes to hiring does set off warning bells.
The color-blind argument strikes at the heart of the continuing debate over what and how far public officials should go to insure that their staffs and their appointments truly represent the broadest diversity possible. Officials must make a concerted outreach effort to make that happen. A color-blind posture more often than not has been nothing but a convenient excuse not to seek out, hire or promote African Americans and other minorities in their administration, no matter how qualified.
Diversity is a major issue this election. Itâ€™s implicit in Democratic rival Barack Obamaâ€™s White House run. Itâ€™s explicit in Ward Connerlyâ€™s anti-affirmative initiative on the ballot in three states this November. Obama opposes it. McCain backs it, and so does Palin.
Palinâ€™s commitment to diversity is no small point in Alaska. According to the 2000 Census figures, blacks make up officially about 4 percent of the state population. But those who self-identify as at least part African-American bump up the percentage much higher. When American Indians, Aleuts, Eskimos, and Asians are taken together, minorities make up about one quarter of Alaskaâ€™s population. This makes the state one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation. Diversity must be more than a word that an Alaska governor pays campaign lip service to and then ignores.
Palinâ€™s campaign and gubernatorial spokespersons say the charge that she is hostile to blacks and minorities is unfair. That may well be true. But according to those black leaders in Alaska who challenged Palin on her administrationâ€™s minority hiring practices, the charge is much deserved.
NAM Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).