We Can’t Breathe

The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Derek Chauvin, a White man, sparked protests in the largest cities across the United States last week. These actions are understandable. It is unconscionable that a handcuffed person is choked to death by a police officer while other officers stand by. George Floyd’s life was taken from him. Let’s hope that the American legal system metes out the same punishment it would if the officers were Black and the unarmed handcuffed civilian was White. When the punishment of those two crimes are identical, then we will be living in a just society. In an unjust society, it is hard to breathe when you are powerless.

There are many faces and bodies of powerlessness. Often they are the result of an imbalance in the numbers of the powerless and the powerful. For example, the percentage of Black Americans (6.8%) is far smaller than of White Americans (84.1%) in Minnesota, according to the 2010 US Census. Even in Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, the 2010 Census showed an imbalance between the percentage of Black Americans (19.4%) and White Americans (63.8%). 

The Minneapolis StarTribune reported in 2014 that the “Minneapolis police have about half the Black and Hispanic officers they need to accurately reflect the city’s population.” At that time, the police force was 78.9% White Americans but only 9.2% Black Americans, which means White Americans were proportionally over-represented by 23.7%, whereas Black Americans were proportionally under-represented by 52.6%. 

Proportional representation is a fundamental tenet of American democracy. Article One of the United States Constitution stipulates 435 voting representatives in the House of Representatives, proportionally allocated to the states by population, with each state having a minimum of one representative. Therefore Minnesota, with 5,303,925 residents, has eight representatives in the House of Representatives, whereas South Dakota, with 814,180 residents, has one representative.

Sometimes, however, the few have more than the many. In Bennett County, South Dakota, the 2010 Census reported that the percentage of White Americans (33.7%) was less than the percentage of American Indians (59.9%). Nevertheless, the 5-member Bennett County Commission is 100% White Americans, and the county’s 3 police officers are all White Americans. 

When the few have power, they typically do not promote proportional representation. In fact, they sometimes work against proportional representation. One method of achieving this goal is to make it more difficult for the powerless to vote. Another method is to gerrymander voting district boundaries so that the powerless are consolidated into one district with a super majority, whereas the powerful are assigned to two or more districts such that they are the majority in each of them. The result is that the powerful minority has the majority of the elected representatives. 

The extreme method of working against proportional representation is to abolish districts altogether and change voting to at-large. This is a clever system that enables a motivated, organized and powerful minority to obtain complete authority over the majority. Bennett County enacted this strategy in 2000 and that is why 100% of the commissioners are White Americans. When the county was organized in 1911, it had voting districts, and American Indians were elected continually until 2000. 

Beginning in 2000 and continuing to today, not a single American Indian has been elected to the county commission under the at-large system. There were two American Indian commissioners whose terms continued into the 2000s. One chose not to run for re-election when his term expired. When the last American Indian commissioner died in office, the other four White American commissioners appointed a White American to fill his seat until the next election, when the fifth White American was elected to that seat. Earlier this year, one of the commissioners resigned his office, and the remaining commissioners again appointed a White American to fill his position. 

This choking down of American Indians is not happening only in Bennett County. It is evident across South Dakota. It is achieved by White Americans systematically working to abolish proportional representation in election rules, in university faculties, in government offices, in business boardrooms, in institution employees, in advisory boards, and yes, in police forces. 

We can’t breathe.

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)