Yesterday the United States Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the South Dakota Department of Social Services for their practice of racially screening prospective employees, validating an argument that the Lakota People’s Law Project has been making for the past decade — the DSS is a racially prejudiced institution that actively and systematically discriminates against Native Americans.
The case centers on Cedric Goodman, a 2010 applicant for an employment specialist position with the DSS at the Pine Ridge office. Goodman has a bachelor’s degree, and had begun working towards a master’s degree at the time of his interview. He also had worked for five years as a social worker, with three and a half in a supervisory position, and already had four years of experience work in this field as an employment specialist for a state run agency. He met all of the preferred qualifications set forth by the DSS.
Goodman watched as the employment opportunity he had applied for vanished from the DSS website, and was stunned to see the position re-opened and filled the next day by a white candidate who had recently graduated college, and had quite limited experience, mostly in retail and office environments. The DOJ official complaint alleges that she was hired despite having, “no work experience that met the employer’s preferred qualifications.” This disparity clearly demonstrates that the DSS chose not to hire Goodman because of their prejudices, not problems with his education, experience or professionalism.
“When employers discriminate against qualified job applicants because of what they look like or where they come from, they violate both the values that shape our nation and the laws that govern it,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division, who filed the case against the South Dakota DSS.
The Lakota People’s Law Project is excited that the federal government has chosen to seek justice for victims of discrimination in South Dakota, but we are not surprised by the allegations. We began investigating the practices of the DSS in 2005, after a group of Lakota grandmothers claimed the agency was seizing Indian children from their families and placing them in non-Native settings in direct violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
In subsequent years of investigation, LPLP confirmed these accusations, and proved that the DSS was in fact wrongfully removing hundreds of Indian children from their homes on an annual basis, and approximately 90 percent of these children were placed in non-tribal foster care or adoptive settings. We found that while Native American children constitute 13.5 percent of the child population in South Dakota, they comprise 54 percent of the youth foster care population.
This forcible diaspora if Native children is not merely due to the the blatant discriminatory animus present in South Dakota’s state institutions, but is a result of the profitable nature of child removal. A 2011 report by National Public Radio asserted that the South Dakota Department of Social Services received about $65 million per year in federal money for Lakota foster care due to the categorization of all Native American children as special needs.
“The state of South Dakota operates under a perverse financial incentive, as they figured out they could prey on the politically and economically marginalized people relegated to reservations and enrich their state coffers in the process,” said Bryan Brewer, former president of the Pine Ridge Reservation. “This is not only a large affront to our people, who have been mistreated and brutalized by an indifferent system for centuries, but it is an outright betrayal of the public trust and a despicable display of venality and corruption by South Dakota’s highest officials.”
The decision of South Dakota DSS officials to systematically violate the rights of Native families to receive increased federal funding is consistent with their actions to discriminate against prospective Native employees. Now they are finally facing justice.
This latest lawsuit is the second of two major civil rights-related lawsuits to be brought against South Dakota, and involving the DSS, in 2015. The first was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court and was ruled in favor of the plaintiff in March.
The court ruled that South Dakota Judge Jeff Davis and his associates, many of whom worked with the DSS, violated the rights of multiple Indian families by willfully and systematically ignoring the dictates of Indian Child Welfare Act. Furthermore, it rules the entire court system, including lawyers and other officials, routinely violated the 14th amendment of the Constitution.
These two lawsuits claiming invidious discriminatory animus toward Native Americans by South Dakota comes amid other incidents, including a white man escaping prosecution after he dumped beer on and hurled racial epithets at young Lakota children at a hockey game in Rapid City. It comes amid questionable killings of Indians by police and revelations that Native Americans comprise disproportionate jail populations in South Dakota and throughout the nation’s prison system.
“The Lakota People’s Law Project has exhorted the DOJ to investigate and sue the state of South Dakota for rampant and widespread racial discrimination against Indians for several years, so this undoubtedly represents a major victory for our cause,” said Lakota People’s Law Project Attorney Chase Iron Eyes. “How long will America ignore what is happening in South Dakota? How long will the United States tolerate the most egregious case of racism as it festers in the heart of the country? While these lawsuits are heartening and certainly help the cause, they are poor proxies in confronting comprehensive and widespread discrimination against Indians. We need firmer moral pressure on the oppressors who run this state before we can begin to reconcile and arrive at real substantive solutions.”