Racism in High Places

by Mitakuye Oyasin

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which made it possible for the government to pay up to $100,000 to families who suffered losses because they worked in uranium mines in the Southwest, as well as those who lived in the fallout areas from atomic testing in Nevada. Also, according to Deborah Hastings of the Associated Press, they apologized for failing to protect uranium workers and their families.

Why did this come about? Look at a map and mark an X where the corners of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico intersect, and you are looking at the richest deposit of uranium ore ever uncovered. The Navajo people who live there had every reason to be elated when mining companies hired them to work in the mines from the late 1940s until decreasing demand closed the mines down in the 1980s. ''By then,'' writes Hastings, ''Navajo men happy for the work and ignorant of radiation had loaded millions of tons of ore into open rail cars.

''They wore no protective masks or clothing. They ate their lunches in holes choked with radioactive dust. They drank mine water that would have triggered a Geiger counter. They staggered home to wives who washed their filthy overalls with the family laundry.

The dying started in the 1960s. In places such as Cove, there are hardly any old men left. Instead, there are poisonous dumps, contaminated springs and thousands of gaping mines.''

Maybe no one knew how dangerous it was to work with uranium. Except for one tiny little detail, the government could always hide innocently behind that excuse. That tiny little detail is that recently declassified documents show that the government not only knew the dangers involved but decided to conceal it.

Excuse me for a moment while I catch my breath! Is this the same government that recently sued the tobacco companies for billions of dollars because they had concealed the dangers of smoking from the public? There are some differences, of course, between working in uranium mines to earn a living and puffing on tobacco for the pleasure of it. And while the dangers of working in a uranium mine might well have been kept from the laborers, there has never been a human beIng who lighted up a cigarette thinking it was exactly healthy. In fact, 50 years ago, cigarettes were jokingly called ''coffin nails'' by the general public.

Now, let me see if have this straight. Billions for smokers, but ''up to'' $100,000 for some who have suffered in uranium mInes or from fallout. Many Navajo families are still waiting for compensation for work-related illnesses and for reasons known only to governmental bureaucracy, they may never collect a dime.

The unjust discrepancy is a simple one for me to figure out. I smell racism. I smell it in the beginning when a Navajo work force was allowed to put itself in harm's way unnecessarily. I smell it in the ''settlement'' where an apology and a few bucks for a few would make the problem go away.

No, the government of the United States is not above a racist attitude, not even today. It may be politically incorrect to espouse it or to tell jokes about it, but the embers of racism lying just beneath the ashes are still hot enough to burn.

For example, Matt Hale is a white man. He is proud to be a white supremacist. Everybody who is non-white belongs to the mud races. If that were the extent of his message, we could write him off as stupid but harmless. But he is not harmless. He is an advocate of hate and violence against non-whites. His teachings have inspired others to violence.

Yet he continues to hide behind the right of free speech protected by the Constitution, a documents whose provisions he would deny to anyone who is not white. Hate crimes are illegal, yet he remains insulated.

And here is where government racism comes in. If he were black, he would be hounded by authorIties at every level, charged with crimes, dragged into court constantly, and perhaps be convicted of a crime he may not even have committed. It has not been that many years since the Black Panthers were hounded out of existence. Innocent men died at the hands of authorIties.

And it makes my head spin to think how quickly he would be stifled if he were Native American. WIthin the last 30 years, the American Indian Movement was suffocated by a government who kept sending its leaders to prison. The FBI even had a special division to infiltrate and undermine the movement. The spirit of the movement is still alive among some of the people, but strong leadership has been neutralized by a government that considered their ideas dangerous.

NeIther group experienced the protection of the Constitution like Matt Hale is doing. ''But,'' sings the chorus of complacent whItes, ''things are better than they used to be.'' Of course they are -- unless you happen to be a Navajo still waiting for justice.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 2, 2000

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