RAPID CITY, S.D. - Dealing with racial issues is a science, not guess work, a U. S. Justice Department representative told this city's Chamber of Commerce recently.
Silke Hansen, of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service in Denver, helped Chamber members work through methods to relieve racial tensions and solve problems more effectively.
Rapid City has been called the most segregated city in the country, with many complaints about racial problems at work and in the stores.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission held a hearing in Rapid City in 1999 on racial problems throughout the state. A recent study by the Government Department of the University of South Dakota revealed that American Indian made up a proportion of the inmates in the state prisons far beyond their ratio in the general population.
The largest non-white population in Rapid City is American Indian. That community has made regular complaints to the city officials and news media over the past several years about police brutality, job discrimination and business harassment.The past two mayors have formed race relation boards that meet regularly, but members on the boards come and go, and their effectiveness has not impressed American Indian citizens.
Another source of tension is the unsolved string of American Indian deaths along Rapid Creek over the past few years.
Hansen said most communities don't attack the problems in a constructive manner but just try to solve the symptoms.
"The first thing is to get the white community to acknowledge there is a problem, and if they do acknowledge it the reaction is usually defensive," Hansen said.
She said if the community looks at only the triggering incident and not at the perceptions and redress the community could face a potential explosion.
In many cases, community or business leaders list all of the things that are being done to resolve tensions and this is seen as a defense, not a solution.
"People need to listen for a long time before responding," Hansen said. "Asking what can be done to fix the problem is a solving response.
"Don't try to convince the other side you are right; ask to help see what is there. Everyone's perception is different. It doesn't mean either side is right or wrong."
Hansen said the first thing she hears in coming to a community is that the police chief is racist and the first response is to get rid of him or her. She added that the same body that hired the current police chief would hire the next one.
"What you need to do is make a list of things you want from a non-racist police chief," she said.
One American Indian in the crowd said, "Hire us."
When American Indians or other people of color are hired, the white community gets upset that an American Indian has pulled them over in a traffic stop. The American Indian community expects preferential treatment in the same case, workshop attendees agreed.
Hansen used the police department as an example, but the lesson could go beyond the department into other aspects of the community. "Focus beyond the individual and come up with an image the department would look like. In many cases the department or business area reaction would be that we are not racist and would acknowledge they have a good relationship with the community.
"Some people should not be looked at as complainers and agitators," Hansen said. "There must be a dialogue with the community and departments.
"Opinions whether a person is racist or not will not change, nor will the perception that some people are trouble makers without dialogue."
"When I was in McLaughlin, S.D. many years ago," she said, "there were stories of American Indians being beaten up. Fifteen years later people were talking about the incidents as if they were still going on."
"The reality is, don't look at just what happened 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Why can't we stop talking about things that happened 15 years ago? Because there is a perception that it could happen again."
Hansen said she could be convinced that businesses that hire more white people are racists. She added that some may not make a conscious decision to hire whites, but the perception brings about the same conclusion.
"Take a look at the climate of employment. Do extensive exit interviews and find out how the climate is different somewhere else. Focus on what the climate should be and set an ideal of what the department should look like," Hansen said.
"We focus too much on laying blame that will not make it better. If we concentrate on whose fault it is we won't have to make it better."
Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce Cultural Diversity Committee organized the workshop.