Eye on Boise: Idaho grapples with history, race, values
By BETSY Z. RUSSELL, Idaho Press
BOISE — There’s been much talk from a certain group of House Republicans this year that studying things like institutional racism or white privilege “offends Idaho values.”
That’s a quote from Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, describing a statement from Boise State University’s Department of Criminal Justice that said that racism didn’t end with the abolition of slavery, and instead is “infused into all of our systems and institutions,” and that “we understand the importance of our own individual and group anti-racism education.”
“This is the kind of social justice indoctrination we’re talking about,” Nate thundered during a Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hearing. “I would like to be able to hold them accountable with their budget, without hurting the University of Idaho or other state institutions who may not be offending Idaho values to such a degree.”
It’s the same sentiment that was behind a new bill introduced by Idaho GOP official Ed Humphreys at a brief House Education Committee hearing on March 19, seeking to punish Idaho public schools, colleges or universities by removing part of their funding if they teach “racist or sexist concepts,” including that “the state of Idaho or the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist.” Humphreys, who was given the podium by acting committee Chair Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, at a time when both the committee’s chairman and vice-chair were out with COVID-19, set up a video camera to film himself presenting the bill. Afterward, he proclaimed on Facebook, “We took a crack at the racist filth being taught to our students!” But human rights advocates who have been working against racism and hate in Idaho for the past four decades say the push reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Idaho’s experience with discrimination, hate crimes and more, from the state’s early history through its modern age. “We’ve all been working in so many ways to promote civil and human rights,” said Tony Stewart, a retired North Idaho College political scientist who co-founded the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment and long has been active in Idaho’s human rights movement. “And to attack social justice? I just don’t understand. It almost makes me speechless that elected officials would do that.” Leslie Goddard, former longtime director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, was the commission’s attorney throughout the struggle with the Aryan Nations in North Idaho, a white supremacist group linked to numerous crimes and murders that finally was bankrupted in a civil suit over its members’ armed attack on a Native American woman and her son who drove by the group’s compound in July of 1988 on their way home from a wedding. The group’s crimes and harassment of local residents led to Idaho becoming one of the first 12 states to enact a felony hate-crimes law in 1983, along with numerous other legislative steps into the 1990s to target domestic terrorism and advance human rights.
“Now we’re trying to rewrite history and pretend that none of that happened, and none of it is still a part of us?” Goddard said. “That’s a big step backward, I think.” Humphreys said, “I wholeheartedly believe that racism is wrong.” He said, “We should protect our students. We should not promote racist concepts.” He said he’s seen such concepts in BSU student assignments, but declined to offer any examples. “It’s been my experience that the very people espousing anti-racism are actually promoting racism,” said Humphreys, a financial adviser from Eagle and the Idaho Republican Party’s Region IV chairman. “If you judge someone on the color of their skin, you are a racist.” Idaho’s racial history is a troubled one, from the slaughter of the Native Americans who occupied the land before white settlers to the mistreatment of Chinese miners to the constitutional disenfranchisement of both Asians and members of the Mormon church. The state saw extensive Ku Klux Klan activity in the first half of the 20th century, and was the site of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. The Rev. Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations arrived in North Idaho in 1973, and by 1980, its neo-Nazi adherents were attacking and targeting local minorities, from a Jewish restaurant chef in Hayden to a biracial family in Coeur d’Alene. “They committed over 100 felonies, they murdered nine people,” Stewart said. “People that were associated with them came there and were taught hate.” When Butler’s group wanted to parade down Sherman Avenue in Nazi uniforms, some in the community argued it was best to ignore them, Stewart recalled. But the local activists who had organized against them and formed the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, led by the late Rev. Bill Wassmuth, Stewart, local attorney Norm Gissel and others, disagreed.
“The worst mistake that any community or society can ever make is to remain silent in the face of discrimination or any kind of hate crimes,” Stewart said. “They take silence to mean support. … We’ve understood that for all of our 40 years.” The task force, which Stewart co-founded, began meeting at a local church, standing with victims and pursuing their cases in court, launching human rights education efforts and pushing for legislative change. Similar groups formed in other nearby communities, and Idaho lawmakers from both parties supported new laws. When the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee held its hearing on SB 1020, the hate crimes law, on Feb. 9, 1983, among those testifying against it were Butler himself and Louis Beam, a former KKK grand dragon who told the committee he believed all homosexuals should be killed. Representatives of law enforcement, including then-Kootenai County Sheriff Larry Broadbent, human rights groups, civic groups and churches spoke in favor of the bill. It passed with bipartisan support, and was signed into law on March 30, 1983, by then-Gov. John Evans. Stewart’s task force still is doing the same work; most recently, it helped a youth minister from Spokane who had brought a youth group, most of them young people of color, to a Hayden McDonald’s for ice cream after a church service, when the minister was attacked in the parking lot. His attacker was sentenced to six months in jail. “In Kootenai County, we’ve never lost a case since 1983,” Stewart said. “After 40 years of this experience, we have such strong, strong passion for trying to promote human rights for every human being.”
The most important thing, he said, is not to stand silent. “I have no examples in history where silence works,” he said. “You never solve problems by ignoring them, and you do not help or assist those who are still facing discrimination or racism by saying, ‘We won’t talk about it.’” “Those who face discrimination consistently, how on earth can we ever make progress if we don’t recognize it, address it, and deal with what are our true values?” Stewart asked. “If you don’t deal with it, then it doesn’t change.” Goddard said, “It seems to me that what they’re trying to do is to whitewash the country, frankly, and to whitewash the state, and to say that we don’t have such problems. And that’s simply not true.” She said, “We resolve it when we face it, and be honest with ourselves about things like white privilege, which is so hard for people to understand.” “I never thought to tell my white children, when they go into a store, that they have to keep their hands in their pockets because somebody’s going to think they shoplift,” she said. “But every one of my non-white friends definitely did that with their children.” Goddard, a Mountain Home attorney who was the Human Rights Commission’s deputy attorney general for 17 years and its director for 10, said the Aryan Nations experience taught Idaho that there are extremes of racism. “But I think it also taught a lot of other Idahoans about taking a look at ourselves and understanding that in many ways, we share racist and sexist beliefs, because we grew up in a country that has those values, maybe nowhere near the extreme that the Aryan Nations did, but we still grew up thinking that it was better to have a boy child than a girl, and that there were certain things girls weren’t able to do, and that maybe Black people just weren’t quite as valuable as white people. Those messages were there, and we’re not going to unlearn them if we pretend that they weren’t there.”
Stewart said, “This is so offensive and insulting to students to say we don’t want you talking about your differences or your cultural differences. It is the height of disrespect for students of minority communities.” Plus, he said, “It is contrary to our history.” “We started out with that terrible thing called slavery,” he said. “We abolished slavery. And then, of course, we had the period after reconstruction of segregation embedded in the law. … We started doing away with segregation laws. Then we moved to the third stage called tolerance. But that’s not where we should stop. It’s progress, but … we’ve really arrived when we celebrate one another. There’s a difference between tolerance and celebration.” Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.