Racism in the Heartland

By Diane Dimond

March 3, 2012 6 min read

I've never written a column about the state of North Dakota, a state from which my parents hailed and where I still have close relatives. The state's motto is, "Liberty and Union Now and Forever, One and Inseparable."

But that's not necessarily so if you are a black American.

North Dakota has no anti-bias or hate-crime laws on the books, no Department of Human Rights and no easy, reliable system for those who feel they have been wronged to seek relief. The issue is important because minorities are pouring into the state to work in the newly lucrative oil fields. The industry's six-figure salaries have trickled down to create many more jobs in the housing, restaurant, hotel and home-furnishings sectors, and people of color are responding in droves.

Ella Davis-Bowen and her husband Gary hail from Tennessee. They are a large African-American family with eight children with names like Champaign, Kilo, Recognize and DaMiracle. In other words, they don't look or talk anything like native North Dakotans, who are predominately of German and Norwegian stock.

Ella told me, "We had to get our kids out of the South ... to try to keep them away from drugs and crime." So, a few years ago, the family drove north as far as their old car would take them, and they ultimately settled in Mandan, N.D.

Both Ella and Gary worked hard to earn money and raise their children. Ella established a business cleaning houses and detailing cars. Gary works in the oil industry. Are they a perfect family? No, but Ella told me with pride, "We've always been hard working, taxpaying citizens."

In North Dakota, which is 93 percent white, her children learned an ugly lesson. Ella says for the better part of a year, a school bus driver called her children the "N" word so often that other kids came to believe it was their family's last name. When tiny Ella marched up to the school to complain in her big, loud Tennessee way, the police were called. She was charged with felony terrorizing. That charge was later reduced, and the school district paid Ella's children a $30,000 settlement for the indignity they suffered. The local paper mentioned Ella's arrest but never mentioned the school district's settlement.

The family was tainted by the incident, and in the words of their good friend Marc Conrad: "They were criminalized right then and there. Everything they ever did after that was suspect." Conrad, a former newspaper reporter, told me: "I suspect what is happening here is what happens in other vanilla, lily-white populations. ... Everyone here is scared of blacks from what they see on TV."

The family moved to Bismarck after the settlement, thinking life would be different in the state's capital. Within days, they became the target of a horrific event.

A police report states that on Oct. 2, 2011, at 3:14 a.m., the family was awakened by the sound of a drunk Caucasian man (and two companions) pounding on their door, shouting vile racial slurs and threatening their lives. In the background of Ella's frantic 9-11 call you can hear the shouting, and Ella tells police she thinks the main attacker has a gun. Police arrest 30-year-old Jesse Kleinsasser, a man with a police record, and note that the incident was clearly "anti-black" motivated.

No matter, Kleinsasser was only charged with disorderly conduct and let go a few hours later after pleading guilty with a $250 fine. When I attempted to ask City Attorney Paul Fraaze about his handling of the case, he was extremely evasive. When I then asked why he chose not to file charges against a Bismarck man who admitted slapping young Recognize during a wrestling practice, Fraaze hung up the phone.

Too bad. I also wanted to ask him why — after the family's recent decision to move far away from the racial trouble in Bismarck — he chose to issue an unheard of statewide arrest warrant for their dog. A pizza delivery man had complained the dog bit at his tires. Seemed like pile-on charges against the family to me.

The county state's attorney was more forthcoming. About the October incident, prosecutor Jason Hammes explained: "There was no evidence of door damage; no gun found. We can only charge on the statutes that we have."

Look, there will always be jerks like Kleinsasser out there, and that is why we must rely on prosecutors to go the extra mile. Kleinsasser could have been charged with any number of other offenses — public drunkenness or terrorizing — but he wasn't. And therein lies the injustice.

Ella was charged with a felony for getting upset that her children were being so disrespected, but a white man with a long arrest record gets a slap on the wrist.

The family is now facing what it claims are trumped-up felony charges of insurance fraud filed against them by the North Dakota insurance commissioner. I plan to look into that, too. But, frankly, I don't think it matters if the Davis-Bowens robbed a bank. No American should have to endure racist taunts and death threats.

Good grief, it's 2012! It's time for North Dakota — and the handful of other states without meaningful anti-discrimination laws — to pass legislation with teeth in it to protect the constitutional rights of every American citizen.

Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com for investigative reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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