My Turn: Vote could take health benefits from Alaskans

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2007

The manager of Nome's Dream Theater summoned the police chief to arrest teenager Alberta Schenck and haul her off to jail.

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Her crime? She was an Alaska Native in 1944. And, she was sitting in the movie theater's whites-only section. Many Alaskans alive today remember that injustice, along with store signs that read: "No Natives, No Dogs."

Schenck's defiance of injustice came 11 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama in 1955.

On April 3, Alaskans have another rendezvous with discrimination, this time at the polls. We will decide whether to reject the "bad old days," when Natives, African-Americans and women faced racism, hatred and discrimination, or embrace the "good old days," when citizens have battled courageously for equality.

The ballot question in part reads: "Shall the legislature adopt a proposed amendment to the state constitution to be considered by voters at the 2008 general election that would prohibit the state ... from providing employment benefits to African-Americans, Alaska Natives or female partners of public employees."

OK, we're just kidding. Actually, we're not being asked to take health care benefits from blacks, Natives and women-only from same-gender partners. But surely you see our point.

Americans are familiar with discrimination. In the South in the 1950s, majority whites fought fiercely to preserve racial segregation.

Alaska Natives were finally allowed to vote in 1915, but until 1924, only if first "approved" by local whites as well as a district judge who deemed them sufficiently "civilized." Then after the U.S. Congress made all Natives citizens, Alaska lawmakers responded immediately in 1925 with restrictions specifically targeting Natives, including requiring an English literacy test in order to vote. Alaskans sanctioned that discrimination for decades until the state constitution finally rejected this blatantly prejudiced voting barrier in 1956.

Times change. On Tuesday Alaskans head to the polls to advise legislators whether to strip some Alaskan families of their health insurance and other benefits. In the world's wealthiest nation, 46 million Americans live without health insurance. Why would Alaskans add to this problem by banning more people, our own neighbors, from receiving basic benefits?

Alaska's and America's Constitutions are designed to protect citizens from the "tyranny of the majority," especially when injustice enjoys popular support, such as against same-gender partners. Historically, for example, U.S. Supreme Court rulings have integrated schools, guaranteed women's rights, and asserted free speech when majority votes could have stunted social progress.

In 2005 Alaska's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that everyone deserves equal pay for equal work, including health care benefits. Obviously all this "same sex" talk can irritate people, the same way many Alaskan voters once felt threatened by social equity for Natives, women and blacks. Eventually, societies do come around, sometimes on their own, sometimes through court rulings.

In the 1940s Ernest Gruening, Alaska's territorial governor, fought hard for equality, but the legislature balked. Then Alberta Schenck wired Gruening about her theater incident, inspiring him to make one more push with help from legendary Native leader Elizabeth Peratovich.

During consideration of anti-discrimination legislation in Alaska's territorial capitol in 1945, Peratovich had listened that day to racist testimony from the senate floor.

Speaking from the heart, Peratovich described racism and cruelty her family faced in Alaska, including discrimination in housing and "No Natives or Dogs Allowed" signs in business windows. After she spoke, senators passed the Alaska Civil Rights Act on an 11-5 vote.

People pushing Tuesday's advisory vote want us to use our much-admired state constitution to take away health care benefits from fellow Alaskans. Will we vote "yes" on April 3 for popular discrimination or "no" for equality for all Alaskan families?

• Susan Andrews and John Creed are humanities professors at Chukchi College, a branch of the University of Alaska in Kotzebue.

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