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Civil Discourse 

Racism Is Still Alive & Well

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A white business executive on a recent flight to Atlanta slapped a 19-month-old black boy and called him the N-word. He was charged with assault and subsequently fired from his job.

At Ohio’s Oberlin College, one of the nation’s first universities to accept blacks nearly 180 years ago, classes were recently canceled after someone wearing a white Ku Klux Klan robe was seen on campus. That incident followed appearances of racist graffiti scrawled on campus buildings.

In Georgia, Emory University’s president recently was chastised for an essay he wrote praising the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted a slave as only three-fifths of a person for representation purposes—and which he described as a positive example of “constitutional compromise.”

In southern Utah’s Dixie State College’s recent successful pursuit to become a university, trustees voted to keep the school’s name despite its association with pre-Civil War racism and the Confederacy. Perceptions of racism are not diminished by the fact that Rodney Rebel was the school’s mascot until 2005; photos in old yearbooks show students performing in blackface, holding “slave auctions” and proudly displaying the Confederate flag at school functions; student dorms formerly were named after plantations; and a campus statue, removed in 2012, depicted a Confederate cavalry soldier.

Obviously, and sadly, the vestiges of our racist past still live on in our country.

Perhaps somewhat naively, I assumed that the historic occasion of the nation electing its first African-American president, along with his winning an equally historic second term, showed great progress in the United States’ fight against racism. That feeling is bolstered by the fact that, even amid record gun violence, there hasn’t been—perish the thought—an assassination attempt on the president.

Years ago, I began supporting the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The impetus to join came after working at a print shop with a 20-year-old woman who was both adamant in and proud of her use of the N-word. Until recently, it’s been encouraging that, outside of hip-hop music, I really hadn’t heard the word in a while.

I wasn’t completely surprised to discover that the aforementioned racist executive hailed from Hayden, in the northern Idaho Panhandle. The town is just a few miles from Hayden Lake, which, for nearly 30 years, until 1998, was the site of the white-supremacist compound Aryan Nations.

Just 40 miles north of Hayden lies Sandpoint, where, in 1980, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. My territory was the remote reaches of the county because I could drive my four-wheel-drive truck. I was required to post on my windshield a large red, white and blue placard that read “U.S. Census” before entering private property. As most residences usually were at least a fourth of a mile from the main road, I used that sign a lot. Upon exiting my truck, I was also required to identify myself as a census worker. One morning, on my rounds to a remote property, I had put just one leg out of my truck and said only “U.S. Census” before the resident on the porch 15 feet away leveled a shotgun at my face and told me I had “10 seconds to get off” his land. When I tried to explain what I was there for, he calmly informed me that now I had “seven seconds.” My mama didn’t raise a fool; I was gone like a cool breeze.

In 2010, an avowed white supremacist ran for the position of sheriff of Sandpoint. He had purchased property not far from there with the purpose of rebuilding the Aryan Nations compound and where he regularly hosted cross burnings and barbecues, to which the media were invited to hear his campaign views. His election failed, and violations forced the sale of the property in 2012.

Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke visited Sandpoint in 2010 to drum up support for a future presidential campaign—apparently, the white-supremacist movement, including the prominent anti-government plank in its platform, still had a following there.

The LDS Church moved to eliminate the impression of racial bias with its 1978 Revelation on Priesthood, reversing the longstanding ban on blacks holding the priesthood, enacted after the death of founder Joseph Smith. In the late 1940s, even black musicians of the stature of Louis Armstrong weren’t allowed lodging in Salt Lake City’s former Hotel Utah, which was owned by the LDS Church.

In attending NAACP meetings, I learned that racial discrimination, while now not so overt, is nevertheless frequently encountered in all areas, from jobs to school to housing.

One of the prime reasons for bias is fear of the unknown. A celebration of black history was created in 1926 to address that. Negro History Week originally was only the second week in February but the federal government expanded upon it in 1976, calling it Black History Month. These recent news events, which dovetailed with Black History Month and President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, could make you question if much forward progress is taking place.

A Huffington Post blog by Dion Rabouin correctly makes the case that the occasion set aside to honor blacks, in teaching programs from elementary to university, falls far short of its goals. The limits of mentioning only Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington and Obama need to be augmented by inclusion of the thousands of blacks who, over thousands of years, have made such uniquely important contributions to civilization: Ramses II, Hannibal, Lewis Latimer and Scott Joplin, for starters.

Maybe then we all could see one another as nothing less than the family of man.

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John Paul Brophy

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