BISMARCK — A North Dakota legislator has introduced a bill that would allow residents to designate their race as "American" on official documents. In speaking about his proposal, Rep. Terry Jones said Black Americans are "glad their ancestors were brought here as slaves" — a comment one Black social activist called extremely racist.
House Bill 1333 would require state agencies to list "American" as the first option on any form that asks for racial information.
Jones, R-New Town, said he is "disgusted" with how he says race is used by bad actors to divide the country and that his legislation would help unify Americans under a shared identity.
He added that he's trying to get national politicians on board with the classification change, but first, lawmakers in North Dakota will consider the bill. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he had not yet read Jones' bill and could not comment on its merits.
Jones said the American nationality qualifies as a race under a definition he gave as "a group of people that has lived under common laws for mutual benefits."
Democratic Fargo Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, who said she has experience working with demographics, called Jones' attempt to characterize "American" as a race "incorrect." She noted that his logic wouldn't be recognized by academics or the federal government — the U.S. Census does not allow residents to mark the nationality as their race.
Dobervich also criticized Jones' bill as oversimplifying the nation's troubled past with race, adding "there's nothing healing about this."
"I don't think (the bill) is meant to be racist, but the optics are not good," Dobervich said.
Jones said his proposal acknowledges America's history with race, but it focuses on commonalities rather than differences.
He added that citizens of all backgrounds are proud to be American, saying of Black Americans, "they're glad their ancestors were brought here as slaves."
Jones said he believes in this sentiment because he read a Reader's Digest article from the 1980s in which a Black doctor visited an African country during a period of civil conflict and made remarks about being grateful that his ancestors had been taken to America.
Forum News Service's attempts to find the article were unsuccessful.
Fargo Black Lives Matter board member Jamaal Abegaz said Jones' comments are racist, crass and unrepresentative of the way many Black Americans view their ancestors' forced arrival on the continent. Abegaz, who is Black, emphatically said he's "not happy that my mother's ancestors were stolen and brought here."
"The unrelenting buffoonery of (Jones') statement cannot be understated," Abegaz said. "And I don’t think he really believes it."
Abegaz dismissed the bill as "a piece of nonsense" that, if passed, would prevent the state from collecting any meaningful data about people of diverse backgrounds in North Dakota.
Michael Coachman, a Black former Republican gubernatorial candidate, backed up Jones' controversial statement, though he presented his own reasoning. The ultra-conservative Grand Forks resident said slavery was a terrible time in American history, but he noted that it was good for Africans who became Christians in the New World.
As far as Jones' bill, Coachman said he supports removing questions about race from official forms because they only serve to divide the country. Coachman said he often doesn't check any boxes on the race question because he wants to be judged solely on his abilities.