Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates in Idaho

Laura Bracken
Dec 14, 2016 · 20 min read
Levar Burton in Reading Rainbow

On a gray winter Lewiston, Idaho afternoon in 1984, my three year old daughter, her baby brother, and I sat on the couch watching Reading Rainbows, hosted by LeVar Burton. Since she had seldom, if ever, seen a black person, I told her that LeVar Burton was a human being, just like us. She nodded and smiled.

My daughter, Anne Helen Petersen, at age 3.

A few days later, while walking in what passes for a mall in our mid-sized town, she saw a tall black basketball player from the local state college. To my great embarrassment, she shouted, loudly, “Look, Mom! There’s a human being!”

Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always — the overseer’s cry, the call the work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that he is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.

— Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Like my children, I was raised in a world of white faces. Born in 1956, I grew up in a suburb north of St. Paul, about 12 miles from Falcon Heights, where the shooting and death of Philando Castile was live streamed. Of the 3.4 million Minnesota residents counted in the 1960 Census, only about 42,000 were non-white. Today the population of my hometown is 2.5% black; Falcon Heights is just 4.4% black. My classmates were divided into Protestants (okay to date) and Catholics (not). I was 9 when Martin Luther King marched to Selma, 12 when he died. I went with my church youth group to tutor in an inner city neighborhood: I was astonished to discover that the palms of black hands were pink. In junior high, I read Black Like Me and believed in equality and justice, passionately, but these were just ideas, abstractions. My graduating class included no people of color. The only inequality I knew was from being a girl.

Arriving at my private Minnesota liberal arts college, I immediately discovered their strategy for diversifying the student body: The parents in the frame on my roommate’s dresser were black. My own parents exchanged worried glances that I ignored. As with almost all of the other black students, she was recruited from the deep South. When we met later that day, we seemed to get along fine, laughing with the girls from across the hall. I thought “She and I will be friends!” As it turned out, we were cordial but not confidants; she declined all invitations. Her friends — all upperclassmen — were polite to me, even friendly, but distant. Like other white students, I was nonplussed when the black students chose to sit at their own table in the dining hall, whooping and catcalling to each other, so foreign to my experience.

Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.

— Barack Obama, The “Race Speech,” National Constitution Center, 2008.

On a whim, I became a summer counselor at The College Settlement, about 140 acres of woods and playing fields in suburban Philadelphia. On the bus to South Philly to pick up the campers, I was overwhelmed by the heat, waves of it, from the road and the brick row houses and the stoops. Waiting for a camper, we were invited into her grandmother’s home, the beautiful sofa and chairs covered in plastic, doilies everywhere, the room narrow. She welcomed us, offered us cold water, we had to go. She was proud of her home but I was way too schooled in suburban taste to appreciate it.

A group of campers; I’m in the bottom row.

I taught campers of all ages to swim, the skinny ones struggling to float, toes inevitably ending up pointing at the bottom of the pool. I lived in a cabin with my girls: Nayda, Marie, Ilya, Veronica, Dorothea, Sonia. I taught them basic environmental science, collecting bugs from streams and staring at samples under a microscope. Ooh, law, they would say. Mostly black but some white, some of the younger ones wet the bed. A few older ones, too. They talked about their skin being ashy. I had never considered whether black skin could burn. The crickets and rustling branches kept them awake at night. I wondered if I was making a difference.

It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense — ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body…Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

In college, I majored in chemistry and excelled. But without a mentor to push me towards grad school, I turned to teaching. My first job was at a white suburban junior high, my second at a private prep school, known for its commitment to diversity. Martin Luther King Day became a holiday in my first year there; the day before I was told to do something in my algebra class to recognize it. It is with considerable embarrassment that I remember asking the only black student to tell the rest of the class what it meant to her. She was a talkative girl but I recall her looking at the floor, struggling for words. It was awkward, uncomfortable, wrong. I returned to what I knew and taught algebra for the rest of the class.

Individuals from disempowered social groups desire recognition for their group but also want recognition of their distinctiveness from the group. Thus many African Americans bristle at the idea of color blindness because it suggests that race is irrelevant to identity. They want to be understood as black and thus tied to a history and culture associated with blackness. At the same time, they do not want to be reduced to their racial identity alone.

— Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen

Ten years later, I was married, with two small children, living in Idaho for my husband’s job. On a trip to Seattle, a six hour drive from home, they were entranced by escalators (there were and still are none in Lewiston). Riding on his first city bus, my son’s short legs stuck straight out from the long bench seat in the back. He was stunned into silence by the large black passenger who sat down next to him with an immense boom box. He had never seen anyone like him before. To avoid an eruption of his usual curious questioning, I distracted him with directions on how to pull the cord to signal a stop. It worked.

Looking south from the viewpoint on U.S. Hwy 95 (elev. about 2700 ft) to the confluence (elev. about 800 ft) of the Clearwater (bottom) and Snake Rivers. Lewiston is on the left; Clarkston on the right. Jet boats carry tourists south on the Snake River into Hells Canyon. Source:

When my son was 7, I returned to work, teaching developmental mathematics at a local state college. When my children were teenagers, my husband left me. It would have been good for me to move away but not good for my children. I stayed, eventually remarried. My children are long grown now, away to New York and Los Angeles, writers and scholars, working and living in diverse communities. They are not surprised when new acquaintances say: “You’re from Idaho? Where the neo-Nazis are?”

Idaho is not just potatoes, not just Boise State’s blue football field, not just Sun Valley, not just whitewater rafting. Idaho is also a state so Red that its governor, both Senators, the two Representatives, and 80% of the state legislature are Republicans. Imagine the state as a puzzle piece with an index finger sticking up from the top. Near the bottom of the finger, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, is Lewiston, a city of about 33,000 people. In 2016, about 95% of its residents are white.

Richard Butler, Aryan Nations founder

For many Americans, the perceptions of Idaho as a hotbed of racism grew out of the incessant media coverage of Christian identity pastor and white supremacist Richard Butler. In 1977, he bought an old farmhouse on 40 acres in northern Idaho and founded the Aryan Nations, with the goal of creating a five state “Aryan Homeland.” Two miles away was Hayden Lake, a startlingly beautiful blue glacial lake with 40 miles of shoreline, almost all privately owned. Before Butler, the area was probably most famous for its exclusive private country club, including the first 18 hole course built in Idaho.

In 1981, Butler hosted the first meeting of the Aryan World Congress at his compound, including the burning of a 25 ft wooden cross. Butler fanned the hate: followers became domestic terrorists with crimes covered by the national press, smearing Idaho. In 1986, multiple pipe bombs exploded in downtown Coeur d’Alene. The headlines in the New York Times: “Bombs Rock Idaho City Torn by Strife Over Racistsand Idahoans Calm in Face of Bombings.” For us, the strife seemed far away: Coeur d’Alene was 2 hours away on a two-lane highway that wound through forested hills and wheat fields, with spectacular views. Outside the state it was all Idaho.

Butler’s organization was bankrupted by a negligence lawsuit. The reputation of Idaho as the home of “skinheads” was not so easily cleared, despite the work of human rights activists and supporters. A 2009 headline from Cleveland’s Plain Dealer: “Aryan Nations gone, but stain remains in Idaho.” A September 2016 headline from the Coeur d’Alene Press admitted “Aryan Ghost Haunts Us Still.” The author of that article quotes an email from a friend, who wrote: “Why in the world would you move up there? What are you doing surrounded by all those nut jobs?” The article continued: “The ghastly thing is that all across America, to a lot of people, North Idaho STILL means racists and skinheads with hideous ideals and murderous plans.” As my grandma used to lecture me, it is much easier to get a reputation than to get rid of it.

Chronicle of the Cinema. (London: Dorling Kindersley), p. 111.

The racists at Hayden Lake were predominantly from California — not native Idahoans. But racism has a long reach back into Idaho history, from the slaughter and resettlement of Native peoples to discrimination against Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Idaho’s government in the immediate post Civil War period was controlled by whites who had left the Confederacy. Housing segregation created Chinatowns, including one in Lewiston that burned to the ground as white firefighters refused to intervene. In the Rialto Theatre in Pocatello, non-whites were “delegated to the last six rows…on your left-hand side.” In 1916, when the racist epic Birth of a Nation played across Idaho, the advice sheet for House Managers included the words “Please bear in mind that NEGROES MUST NOT BE ADMITTED TO BIRTH OF A NATION UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” In 1958, the Franklin Park neighborhood in Boise had a sign with “boxcar high letters,” CAUCASIANS ONLY.

But I didn’t know any of this when I moved to Lewiston, which is only 7 miles from the Nez Perce Reservation boundary. My kids and I applauded the Nez Perce riding on horseback in the rodeo parade; I was stunned when a new friend, born and raised in Lewiston, characterized the Nez Perce as a “bunch of drunks.” She said that I should go to the bars and see.

Idaho Senator William Borah, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

After the turn of the twentieth century, Idaho Senator William Borah ensured that Idaho and racism were associated in national politics. He had an “absolute genius for newspaper publicity,” informally hosting reporters in his office every day after his lunch in the Senate dining room. In 1922, Borah led an alliance of Senators from the south and mostly white western states in stopping legislation that would have empowered the federal government to prosecute lynchings. Arguing that the bill was an unconstitutional encroachment on states’ rights, he urged the Senate to trust in the good intentions of the southern states. Twelve years later, he opined that educating both races “to understand their responsibility to society” was the best way to end lynching.

At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself. And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans — lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession — either to come to terms with this necessity, or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find a way of doing both these things at once.

— James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Roll Call for the Civil Rights Act in the House, United States House of Representatives Office of the Clerk — United States National Archives and Records Administration

Although many politicians used the cover of states rights in opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Idaho residents were not as restrained, urged on by waves of pamphlets and newspaper ads that were funded by Mississippi segregationists. Correspondence to Congress was overwhelming in its opposition to the act. One woman from Kellogg, Idaho wrote to Democratic Representative Compton White, Jr: “What are they attempting to do to this wonderful land of ours in trying to blend the races into a homogenous society? Isn’t that just what the Communists desire?” Despite this pressure from constituents, all four of the Idaho delegation voted Yes. In the 1966 elections, Idaho voters responded by replacing White, Jr. with a conservative Republican who, in 1983, would vote against a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I moved to Idaho in 1984, legislation for a state MLK holiday was not on the table. As the years passed, legislators against the holiday argued about states rights, federal overreach, and the expense, which was estimated to be $154,000. By 1990, however, most agreed that negative publicity about the Aryan Nations was affecting the state’s image. Additional pressure was applied by civil rights activists, student rallies, observances of the federal holiday, all four of the state’s major newspapers, faculty organizations, and constituents. Others were not convinced. Rep. Dean Haagenson, R-Coeur d’Alene, said “I am sick and tired of the suggestion that we should wear sack cloth and ashes because we’ve got some nutsos living up on the hill out there.” The headline on the next day’s editorial in the Lewiston Tribune was “Nutsos on the hill and in the Idaho Legislature.”

Some state legislators argued others were more worthy of a holiday: Brigham Young, Lincoln, Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, even Bill Cosby. “He’s for family values, happy marriages, and children.” Representative Ron Crane said about Cosby, “He’s one people could rally around.” Finally, on March 28, 1990, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans passed the legislation. Idaho was the 47th state to do so, albeit with an amended name: Martin Luther King/Human Rights Day.

I know I followed all of this but it seemed far away, in Boise. My local Democrat legislators supported the legislation. I was busy, raising kids. But it became very important when the Lewiston School Board, of which I was President, had to decide in 1992 whether to cancel classes on the holiday. At a meeting to approve the calendar (that I missed because I was out of town), the Board voted to keep students in class, reasoning that it would give teachers more time for civil rights instruction. At the next meeting, a young history teacher and a group of his students passionately spoke against the decision. The teacher said “My students are concerned about the stereotype they will portray by not observing this holiday.” He told us that his students had a “full understanding of civil rights.”

One student presented a petition with 400 signatures; another student argued that since the district was willing to dismiss school to provide more parking for state athletic tournaments, it should be willing to observe the holiday. Their message was clear: we want to honor the work of Dr. King and you are standing in our way. After we voted 3–1 to accept the calendar change (I voted in favor) and extend the school year by one day, the headline in the newspaper was “Board bows to pressure to give holiday.” I do not recall giving any thought to my own experience trying to teach about civil rights. In hindsight, I realize that I did not do my homework, seeking other perspectives about the decision, especially from the Native Americans and other people of color in our community.

Posted on Idaho State Representative Heather Scott’s Facebook page

Given Idaho’s enduring racist image, perhaps the nation was not shocked in July 2015 when Idaho state representatives Heather Scott and Sage Dixon flew the Confederate battle flag as well as three American flags on their entry, an old Army troop truck, in the Priest River Timber Days parade. Scott posted a photo of herself on Facebook, saying “Protecting and promoting our freedom of speech is an honor.” In October 2016, the Idaho Attorney General opened an investigation into allegations that Scott supporters “stalked and harassed” a young field organizer for the Democratic party in Scott’s district. In a Safeway parking lot, an armed Scott supporter harassed the 90-year-old mother-in-law of Scott’s challenger about the bumper sticker on her car.

Given Idaho’s enduring racist image, perhaps the nation was not shocked at the October 2015 events in Dietrich, ID. A black high school student, adopted at age 4 by white parents, was assaulted in the locker room after football practice by 3 white teammates. As one teammate restrained the victim, another player allegedly thrust a coat hanger into the victim’s rectum. A third teammate kicked the coat hanger several times. All were reportedly laughing. The family filed a $10 million civil suit against the high school and 11 employees, claiming that the attack was the last event in months of racist bullying and violence, not prevented and even encouraged by the coaching staff. According to the civil complaint, the victim was especially vulnerable due to “mental disorders including learning disabilities.”

The LA Times headline was “An Idaho town grapples with an ugly mix — high school football, racism and rape.” The Washington Post went with “White high school football players in Idaho charged with sexually assaulting black, disabled teammate with a coat hanger.” The Huffington Post argued that “Idaho Rape Case Screams for a Racial Hate Crime Prosecution.” The Dietrich mayor told the press, “We’ve never seen anything like this. No one knows how to deal with it, what to make of it.”

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.

— Martin Luther King, Jr, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1964.

Given Idaho’s enduring racist image, perhaps most Lewiston residents were not shocked by some of the local reaction in 2016 to a Black Lives Matter (Too) rally. After a 19 year old white woman, Madison Winn, saw the Facebook live stream of the police shooting and death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, she used a Facebook page to organize the rally in Lewiston. In an interview in the local paper, she said her goal was to “support the movement of black people being treated equal in the eyes of law enforcement and society.”

Although there were supportive posts, including my own, on the Facebook page, there were many who disagreed, posting variations on the refrain of All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Jesus Matters. There were direct threats of violence, images of the Confederate battle flag, and veiled death threats.

You’re bringing this race baiting crap to the valley as if blacks are the only people who get murdered.

What I want to know is, since racism is currently a VERY INSIGNIFICANT PROBLEM IN THIS VALLEY, why incite any anger. How about AMERICAN LIVES MATTER. How about this idea, if this is important to you personally, go do a good deed for one person of color, any color, a day. If enough of us do this, you will knock the police hating, riot inciting, trouble makers off their feet.

I believe race currently has no effect on success or happiness. Intelligence and personality are what do. Life is fair unless someone forces themselves to live in a lifestyle that discriminates against their race.

Black leaders and race hustlers lie about the circumstances that led to the current racial tensions and police assassinations.

All lives matter. The way were headed, we may as well make blacks slave owners of the whites if only black lives matter…Theres going to be a civil war if this crap continues, and people like you are going to sit at home running your mouth, while the rest of us stand up and defend ourselves and defend our country against that black piece of shit and what he’s doing to our country.

The Lewiston chief of police posted on the page, trying to convince Ms. Winn not to hold the rally.

Madison I applaud you for your efforts to organize and stand up for something that you believe in and feel is a noble cause. However, to place the community and its resources in jeopardy to express a political view sometimes it just isn’t worth it. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves the question should I rather than can I. Yes the constitution allows for freedom of speech and that is our right as an American citizen. But when our rights jeopardize the safety and security of others is exercising those rights the right thing to do because you can? Whatever the decision is we will do our best to ensure that the demonstration is conducted in a responsible manner which does not restrict or impede the rights of anyone but with the limited amount of resources this valley has, we can not ensure the safety of anyone involved and keep in mind the resources we use at this event must be pulled from somewhere. This means less resources to respond and assist throughout the rest of this community. Law enforcement would be happy to meet with you and your fellow organizers to discuss alternatives to your plans which would benefit all concerned.

More citizens wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper, The Lewiston Tribune.

The Tribune praises a 19-year-old teenager who organized a Black Lives Matter protest march in the Lewiston-Clarkston area. This is totally beyond outrage. This teenager is absolutely naive and clueless as to who and what she is supporting…Black Lives Matter consists of a dedicated, far-left, dangerous, radical blacks with only one true agenda — totally marginalize, demean, denigrate, besmirch, impugn, injure and kill our honorable men and women of law enforcement.

I would suggest to her that she go to the black communities in Chicago and organize demonstrations there so that the killings of blacks by blacks would may be reduced, if not stopped.

I am so proud to be an American and to live in the United States where it truly doesn’t make any difference of the color of our skin, does it? But don’t you get a little tired of the media pointing out that he or she is an African-American? Aren’t we all just Americans?…Why can’t we all just get on the same page and be Americans? And how about Miss Black America? Now isn’t that funny? Any American girl can become Miss America, but to become Miss Black America you have to be black. And can you believe Black Lives Matter? Well I have news for America — black/brown/white lives matter — all lives matter.

And there was some pushback, perhaps most eloquently expressed in a letter to the editor written by a woman in her eighties.

I admire and appreciate her [Madison Winn] efforts to awaken our community to the threat and divisiveness brought on by fear and hate. Many of the letters in our Lewiston Tribune have been vitriolic, unpatriotic and unacceptable in our community, in this year and in this century. Creating a community acceptance that we are more alike than we are different, knowing God made “them,” too, could perhaps replace the spirit of superiority I read too often in the letters.

Ultimately, the police separated the protesters into three groups, about 150 people supporting Black Lives Matter (Too), a small group of Christians, and a small group of other counter-protesters. The event was characterized as chaotic but peaceful, even as a pickup drove by multiple times, a Confederate Battle flag flying high.

In November, after the election, a small group of men gathered at the same place with their signs, a KKK hat, and a Confederate battle flag to protest hate laws that they believe target whites. “Hate crime for one, hate crime for all, equal justice under the law,” came through a bullhorn. Unlike Madison Winn, the police apparently did not advise them to find another place for their protest.

Racism in a town with hardly any people of color can seem different from that elsewhere. It is a racism of forgetting: few in Lewiston today know that Chinatown was allowed to burn, or how the land on which the town stands was taken from the Nez Perce. But so is the racism of many in the South, who persuade themselves of the benevolence of slavery and Jim Crow. It is a racism of distance: the opportunities for my neighbors to see how whiteness makes a difference are limited — as one person wrote on Facebook, “I’m still waiting for my white privilege.” But given the increasing segregation of so much of the country, this may not be so different from how many whites feel in Los Angeles or Chicago or the suburbs of Philadelphia. Idaho can seem like an exception; perhaps it is a microcosm. It is a racism that resides in people who believe they are not racist, are proud they are not racist, who resent being called racist.

White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.

— John Metta, “I, Racist,” July 2015

The books on my shelf.

A few years ago, I picked my daughter’s copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings off a bookshelf. Then The Color Purple. She recommended Zora Neale Hurston and Amazon suggested Melissa Harris-Perry. Then Ta-Nehisi Coates, Isabel Wilkerson, Bryan Stevenson. I backtracked to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Notes of a Native Son and some poetry by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. I watched 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Straight Outta Compton. King Leopold’s Ghost was the plunder of human bodies and Song of the Shank was the owning of one such body. In these stories and histories and art came a visceral recognition of white privilege.

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

Something murkier and unknown. A country where segregation by class, by politics, by religion, by race, and by privilege is a fact, both on the ground and in media space. Hate speech has become accepted discourse, fueling anger and feelings of separation, of hopelessness, of permanence. Idaho may have a reputation but it should not be a scapegoat, allowing others to ignore the racism in their corner of America. Much has been written about Donald Trump’s inciting fear and loyalty by blaming various Others. But this same attitude can cling to any group, liberal or conservative, who believe that racism does not linger or thrive in their communities. And, those who know it does linger, does thrive, are afraid to say much, afraid to bring on the trolls, the letters, the name calling, the threats, the hate.

What makes a movement work are thousands of parts that come together and express itself in favor of a given destination or objective. You have to find men and women who are willing to play the role that each of these things demand.

— Harry Belafonte, New York Times, September 2016

As parents do, I often wondered over the years whether I did the right thing, moving my children to Idaho. I fretted whether they would be ready to live in a multicultural world, ready to act as allies for those who face racism, to choose to be one of the thousands of parts. But they are finding their way. It is my task to do the same.