31 January 2005

Habits of Racism...

A Glimpse of Inauguration and a Few Habits of Racism

Posted: January 27, 2005
by: Suzan Shown Harjo / Indian Country Today

For most residents of the District of Columbia, Inauguration Day is a good time to stay off the streets or get out of town, especially during the ramp up when security is being tested and Capitol Hill is overrun by high-rolling revelers.

The closest I got to the official events was on Inauguration eve at Union Station, site of a huge gala, where my train pulled in just as the party broke up. Republican bigwigs and wiglets who paid at least $250,000 to be part of the quadrennial celebration were clutching their baby blue Tiffany boxes as if the future depended on the etched mementos inside.

Those of us who weren't met by stretch limos shivered outside in a taxi line for nearly an hour. To pass the time, I tried to calculate the cleaning bill for the long silk and velvet gowns and sable and fox coats trailing in three-inch deep filthy slush. (But, as the Harvard president can tell you, we women don't have much of a head for math.)

The men in my sight line were dressed in leather, camel and cashmere coats, and footwear ranging from black patent tuxedo pumps to crocodile cowboy boots. The women wore strappy gold or black heels, all open-toed, and put on their game faces as frostbite set in.

Four blond Yalies behind me sent their beautifully turned-out dates back inside the station to get warm. Before I could compliment them on their courtesy, the young men began rating their dates. One wasn't serious about his, because she was only a seven. Another dismissed his as a six, saying she was just a family friend. Some friend.

During 45 minutes of snarky talk, the boyfriends only referred to the young women as girls and chicks. It's long been considered rude and ignorant to refer to women as girls, and girls stop being girls when they're mature enough to have babies.

And ''chicks,'' really? I hope that throwback term isn't making a comeback beyond New Haven.

The young men amused each other with little asides about local people taking cabs to Anacostia - a section of unofficial Washington that is predominantly African American and mostly poor - but sexism was their default position.

By the time I got a ride, I was looking forward to the day after Inauguration Day, when the rich and careless would be on their way home or sleeping off the parade and balls, and Washington would be a bit more civil and a little less smug.

Like all inside Washington outsiders and everyone beyond D.C., I watched the Inaugural address on television. The speech was well written and well delivered, invoking the rule of law and protection of minorities, and respect for institutions in unnamed locations with ''customs and traditions very different from our own.''

President Bush pronounced ''freedom'' and ''liberty'' dozens of times, as if repetition of the words would hypnotize tyrants and the tyrannized into states of liberation around the world. The speech also was designed for consumption at home, so that Americans would have a way of thinking about this country and its relation to the world community of nations: ''The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.''

He made it all sound so good that I wanted to rush right over to the White House and ask to borrow a cup of that liberty.

But the part of the speech that really caught my attention was a line written for the crowd at Union Station and the other Bush boosters freezing on the National Mall: ''And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.''

I would love to read the various lists of racist and bigoted habits identified by the White House staff and federal agencies, and to know which ones they argued should be abandoned and which held sacrosanct. Judging from past practices of ignoring and excusing racism against American Indians, they may have missed ones dealing with federal Indian policy, or split on whether or not to put them aside.
Here are some habits of racism that the Bush Administration can schedule for abandonment right away.

Destruction of Native sacred places is a vile habit of racism that continues to feed the avariciousness of developers and to keep religious freedom beyond the reach of traditional American Indians. Over 15 years ago, the Supreme Court urged creation of a statutory cause of action to protect Native sacred places, but all presidents and congresses have failed to enact one.

President Bush can ask Congress to send him a sacred places protection law and then sign it. This will send a powerful signal around the world that America's commitment to freedom extends to Native nations whose customs and traditions differ from the mainstream.
President Bush can instruct those Smithsonian and Interior scientists who are undermining repatriation laws to cut it out, and to abandon the habits of racism that lead them to treat dead Indians as their property. He can commit resources to stop ''collectors'' from robbing Indian graves.

President Bush can instruct the National Park Service to show respect for the dead and the living by providing complete data to enable Native nations to identify those Native human remains which are held in federally-assisted repositories and classified as ''unidentifiable.''
President Bush can use the bully pulpit to tell all owners and administrators of American athletic programs that it's time to give up their toys of racism and stop using Native references to promote sports teams and sell their paraphernalia.

President Bush can tell Justice and Interior to break the racist habit of fighting Indian people who want government accountability for management of Indian property. He can instruct the White House to start working with tribal people on a fair and just settlement of the Indian trust funds lawsuit.

President Bush can urge the California and Minnesota governors to abandon the racist habit of threatening Native nations into turning over Native resources to the states.

President Bush can instruct his Justice Department to vigorously pursue cases against the white men who commit the overwhelming majority of violent crimes against Native women.

All these things the president can and should do, if only to convince the world that the U.S. message of freedom is real.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.


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