Reframing Racial Issues

 

Silke Hansen

CRS Mediator, Denver Office


[Full Interview]

Question:
How do you get people to reframe a conflict from being about race to being about something else?

Answer:
It's what I started talking about early on. You don't talk about race; instead, you ask, "What are the hiring policies?" or, "What are the discipline issues?" You ask, "What does the curriculum look like?" or, "Do you have access to the establishment, to the superintendent?" Because even though the community sees the superintendent as being racist and as being the reason why they can't get what they want, the real issues and I'm not going to say race hasn't influenced what has happened there but the next level or the level at which this needs to be resolved isn't race; it's policies and procedures, and access, and communities, and processes. It's about interaction and communication, both of which were sorely lacking in this case. The race factor just made it more difficult because both sides believed, "Those people are difficult to deal with because of what they have been taught." Race was the orange, but it wasn't the issue. The community could get a person of the same race in that position who didn't change the policies, and that would be more frustrating, because now one can't even blame it on racism anymore. But if they got somebody else who is white, but who changes the policy and is more responsive to the community, that will decrease the perception of racism. And that will diminish the taproot or fuse of inequality and disparity. So even though people see the issue as race, it really isn't race at all. Another example of that is the issue of sovereignty, though I haven't yet been able to get the parties to understand this, and so I haven't been successful in reframing in this area. Sovereignty is a big issue with Native Americans, particularly when it comes to law enforcement on reservations. There is less and less willingness by tribal leadership to allow a non-tribal law enforcement to have any kind of role on the reservation. This also applies in cases of hunting and fishing rights disputes. One of the biggest obstacles to developing some effective collaborative approaches to law enforcement on and near reservations, and to hunting/fishing rights on and near reservations is that both the American Indians and state officials approach it from a perspective of, "Who has the sovereignty? Who has the jurisdiction?" What I try to get across is, "Okay, if you have the jurisdiction, or if you have the sovereignty, what is it you want to do with it? What is it that you want to accomplish?" If I could get them to talk about what effective law enforcement would look like, regardless of who has the jurisdiction and the sovereignty, I really think they could work that out. I totally believe that. But it is such a sensitive issue, it is very difficult to get beyond that. The focus has been on the sovereignty, because it's a symbolic issue as well as a real issue. Symbolic issues are very difficult to surmount. There was one hunting/fishing case that I was called in to, where the state and the tribe had been in negotiations but reached a deadlock. That's when someone called me. They said, "Well, so- and-so says Silke Hansen claims she can do this. Let's call her." "Oh gee, thanks a lot!" I keep telling people, "Why don't you call when you start these negotiations, not when they fall apart?" But I went up anyway, and they showed me what they had done, and I said, "I don't even want to see that." I started putting stuff on the white board. "If you have regulations, what are your objectives? What is it you are trying to accomplish?" And they were like this [she linked her fingers together] they absolutely agreed. So once they agreed on that, it was just a matter of determining what kind of policies each side needed to bring those objectives about. Both sides gave a little, and at the end of a very long day, the people at the table reached an agreement. That's the good news. The bad news is that when it went back to the tribe the tribe didn't buy it, because they said it was encroaching too much on their sovereignty. Another case in the same state ended the same way. It involved a similar kind of negotiation. The parties reached an agreement at the end of the day, but in that case it was the state that blocked the agreement. The negotiators went back to their superiors, who threw out the agreement, again on issues of sovereignty. So there was no agreement. But to me, it proves a point. You have to cut through and disregard the identity issues well, you can't ignore these issues totally because they are there. But the mistake that we usually make in most discussions is that we make racism or sovereignty the issue, and that is not the issue. The issue is, "How can we get past that to provide effective law enforcement?" "How can we get past that to provide good stewardship of our natural resources?" But the history of feeling attacked and encroached-upon and the perception that "they are just trying to whittle away at what we have, piece-by-piece," prevents people from focusing on the real issues. On the other hand, there is the concern that the state "should not give those people special rights and recognition." These feelings are so strong that it is very difficult to come from a different perspective. But I am absolutely convinced if they could just throw out that "orange" and deal with the "flavoring" and the "beverage," there would be much more common ground.

Question:
When you succeed in getting them to do that, what is the long-term result in terms of identity and symbolic issues and race relations? If they can cut through those things to resolve this incident, does it have a long-term effect on other incidents?

Answer:
Well, I think it would if it worked at all, but as I said in the two examples that I gave you, it didn't work. The people at the table were able to reframe the problem, but their superiors were not willing to do that, and the agreements were thrown out for political reasons. It was seen as giving too much or losing too much in terms of sovereignty and jurisdiction and control. So neither agreement held up. I do believe that had it held up, it could have provided a good model, a good precedent for how we can get cooperative agreements on issues like this. In fact, there are other states where there is less mistrust between state and tribe, and where in fact we do have better cooperative relationships. If you could either just not mention "sovereignty" or acknowledge that each of them has sovereignty, and that the two separate governments of two sovereign states are reaching an agreement, I think it would be doable. But there is so much tension and mistrust in this particular setting that it is difficult to make that happen.

Question:
What about other settings though? Such as, for instance, the principal who was accused of being racist, where you were able to reframe it in terms of discipline policy and hiring and that type of thing? Would that have affected the long-term relationship on race relations in the schools?

Answer:
It would, because the potential triggering incidents are less common, so the "bomb" is less likely to go off. Now there is a precedent of communication. There is a mechanism and an expectation that people will address and deal with problems before they get to the point of explosion. So it is the redress side that's handled more effectively. Once there is a precedent for communication, it makes a big difference. Probably one of the most positive examples of that is the same tax day facilitation. There were anywhere from 75 to 100 people in that room and at least as many when I went back for a second meeting. But out of those meetings came a sort of "community board" which included Hispanic and Anglo participants, including law enforcement people. They formed this board and I trained them in three days I gave them three days of basic mediation training. I remember one of the members of the group said, "Gee, you know, Silke, I think this is the first time somebody has come and said, 'I'm from the Federal Government and I'm here to help you,' and then actually done it." I thought that was a huge compliment at the time. That board still exists today, and is still dealing with problems involving the police and community relations. But they also began to look at other sources of tension within the community. This community started out as very mistrustful. There were a lot of accusations about how Hispanics were being treated by the law enforcement system. But now the leader of that system is working with that Hispanic community to deal with education issues in the community purely because people are talking to each other now. And they pay me to do that! It's great!