Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Some local business people have obtained necessary rezoning to build a proposed beef-processing plant at Aberdeen. As happened when Aberdeen was in the running for a turkey processing plant, a significant number of people have ranted and raged about the kind of people such enterprises would attract. The Aberdeen American News reported this reaction at a hearing on the rezoning:
Some audience members were more blunt. Jerry Mork of Aberdeen said the plant would create "a new underclass of citizen." The crime rate will go up and it won't be safe to walk city streets at night, Mork said. He said he recently moved back to Aberdeen from Grand Island, Neb., where a meat-packing plant has caused serious problems.
"If this foolishness gets approved...your (city) slogan needs to be 'Life was good in Aberdeen,'" Mork said, referencing the "Life is good in Aberdeen" motto.
Some very disturbed citizens have e-mailed me with a link to the Aberdeen American News discussion board, which contains a number of comments in a similar vein. When people on the board point out that such comments are racist and discriminatory, the commenters get indignant. They aren't racist, they insist, they are just concerned about the ethnic purity and the social conditions of pristine little Aberdeen.
I received the e-mails because I am a candidate for the state legislature and the writers expect their representatives, present and potential, to do something. The authors of the racist comments may be a minority, but they do succeed in coloring the whole community with a brush of intolerance, ignorance, and hatred. The ultimate issue arising from such a reaction is, as one correspondent put it, why any business would come to Aberdeen when its potential employees will be greeted with prejudice, malice, and discrimination. Having worked for consulting firms that have done attitude surveys in market areas, I say unequivocally that businesses do not come into communities where their workers will be subjected to ethnic and class discrimination. It affects productivity and quality and creates problems that savvy businesses know they have to avoid. So, even if the hatred exists among a small minority, shrewd business owners know it is an insidious force that can kill a business that is trying to get underway.
I come from immigrants. All of my grandparents came from Sweden. When I was a child, I heard every Polish joke cast as a Swede joke. The Swedes came to Moline, Ill., in droves to work in John Deere's factories, and they were charged with overrunning the community and creating an underclass that had difficulty with English, was inherently stupid, and did not wash their pits sufficiently.
South Dakota has a long reputation for its racial intolerance. Alexander McKenzie, once the boss of the Dakota Territory, attributed the Swedes with genetic mental defects. The author of the Wizard of Oz
, L. Frank Baum, wrote a couple of newspaper editorials in Aberdeen calling for the extermination of the Sioux. Hutterites and other German-speaking people were driven out of South Dakota during our conflicts with Germany. I still hear the terms "niggers" and "prairie niggers" coming out the mouths of people regarded as solid citizens.
There is not much a state legislature can do to cure endemic hatred and racism and malevolent bigotry. Legislation cannot eliminate ill will toward humans and the desire for ethnic strife and its ensuing violence. One commentator in the discussion thread suggested that the 2,500 soldiers who have died in Iraq did so to preserve his right to express his hatred against immigrants. Legislation can only indirectly counter this kind of thinking.
There are two major things that can work to identify and contain the sources of hatred. The first is absolutely open government. Legislation, as has been enacted in most other states, can require that every government activity that affects the people be done in the open and with public access to its records. Some people connected with government who are posturing for the Aberdeen beef plant are the very people I have heard in private settings make vicious comments about ethnic minorities and the working class in general. If all government functions were done in the open, the people would at least know what kind of thought processes and aspects of character were shaping their community.
The other matter that could use legislative help is education. Education has failed the people of South Dakota. It has failed because it is run by politicians who feel indebted to a power structure that really does not want public education and fails to give it adequate funding and adequate freedom for competent and dutiful teachers to do their jobs.
As for Aberdeen, I don't think any legislation can change the justified perception that it is a town held hostage by ethnic intolerance and is a backwater of mainstream America. The problem can be addressed by the community's journalists, its churches, and its schools if the teachers had the authority and support to banish the class discrimination and hatred from their schools. Anyone who is connected with education, whether as a teacher, a parent, or an alert observer, knows that social forces in schools are an obstacle to learning for some kids and is, in fact, creating a new class of alienated children and dropouts.
Businesses will go where they can operate without social obstacles interfering with their operation. People will go where they can realize the promise of America. Where does that leave Aberdeen?(And, hey, SDP and War College, that is a rhetorical question.)