Notice the undercurrent

Why bigoted Valentines are an opportunity to recognize uncomfortable American truths

The regional news providers at CBS-3 and NBC-10 have recently reported on complaints from residents in Cinnaminson, Gloucester Township, Maple Shade, and Moorestown that they had found fliers sponsored by the Ku Klax Klan on their properties. The fliers express racist and bigoted ideas inside the image of Valentine’s-style hearts and encourage the reader to “love [their] own race” and provide an out-of-state phone number attached to a recorded answering service.

Appropriately, after such an alarming display of open bigotry, the reports have been greeted with a strong rejection from the public. Residents and community leaders alike have risen to the occassion to reject this attempt at outreach by the KKK. NBC-10 News reported that Maple Shade town council member, Lou Manchello, said, “There’s no room for that kind of hate here in Maple Shade.”

Again, this rush by the public to scorn the ideas expressed on these fliers is heartening; however, I fear that through Facebook-condemnations and a fast-moving news culture that this incident will quickly recede to the periphery of our collective attentions and avoid proper examination. Because beneath the top layer of hateful stupidity, what this story really portrays is a local, more personalized example of the loose threads of history, culture, and the realities of American life.

As a life-long resident of Maple Shade, I know that the town has a complicated racial history. Growing up, I knew that the only notable historical quip about my hometown was that a local, white bar owner had refused to serve and thrown a young Martin Luther King, Jr. out of Mary’s Place in 1950. In the decades before that, local members of chapters of the KKK received permits to march down Main Street. In more recent years, an organization called Micetrap Distributions served as one of the largest distributors of white nationalist/neo-Nazi material in the region and maintained a PO Box in Maple Shade. The organization was even listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as a major purveyor of racist material in a state with the fourth-highest number of hate groups (40) in the country. Micetrap is one of Burlington County’s five such hate groups listed by SPLC.

While it is appropriate and necessary to reject this thinking in our community, the accentuating history of Maple Shade — seemingly personified in a physical PO Box space — does indicate that bigoted hate has a place here. Not that that hate is a dominant force, but, if we want to be honest with each other, we should acknowledge that this type of thought is at least an undercurrent.

It’s in this way that this local occurrence can serve as a teaching moment, a facilitator of context for a larger examination of the undercurrent of hate and bigotry that runs through American life. While this undercurrent has surely been a stronger force in the past, and even though history has seen many barriers removed to weaken that undercurrent, it has always been there to pull the vulnerable to the darkness of ignorance. Over the course of generations, the dispatches of that undercurrent have surely left a residue that is evident in such news as these fliers and, by extension, of institutional bias in the state.

Of course we should rally around this as decent, non-hateful people, but in order to achieve a greater understanding and construct bridges to lasting change, we should be learning from this example. To do so, we must acknowledge and accept our history is by no means a rosy one here or anywhere else and that that history has consequences beyond our control.

We must acknowledge that this residual legacy of bigotry and hate has been an undercurrent of American life that has persisted, and done so more insidiously in recent decades. This is evident by the fact that growing up, fully unfurled Confederate battle flags were on display on high-traffic roads through Maple Shade. It is evident in the history of and the continued economic disparities between the Burlington County suburbs and Camden City. It was evident in our most recent county elections, when the Burlington County GOP felt comfortable dispatching a dog-whistle campaign flier referencing another poor, crime-riddled, and predominantly black urban center in the state.

And while our new president has already signed immigration and refugee bans and given orders for deportation surges, the indications are, under it all, domestic threats are on the rise. A recent George Washington University study found that self-identified white nationalist and neo-Nazi Twitter accounts saw their reach multiply more than 600 percent between 2012 and 2016. In the same period of the study, these groups massively outperformed ISIS on Twitter, a platform both entities rely on for recruitment.

Our neighbors are shocked by hate brochures being shared as openly as (what should remain) decades-past; at the same time, the dissemination of the same types of sentiments online has spiked. And as some of these sentiments leak into our politics — both national and local — it is easy to be alarmed and disgusted by what seems like a new and unwelcomed foe. What may be more difficult — but surely more lasting — is to notice the undercurrent that snakes back through history. If we merely shake it off and try to forget about it, we risk letting this undercurrent continue to surge up and consume us.