Racism and bigotry right here in Idaho

By Richard Larsen

Regrettably we still live in an era when some among us choose to “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel” when it comes to racial issues. They choose to allow slight physiological variations to be an impediment to acceptance of others as part of a common human family. It should be an affront to all of us when bad things happen to good people, but especially when it happens in our own backyard.

About a month ago, a good friend of mine in Boise shared a disturbing and awkward incident he experienced. After being invited with five other friends to a private party, he was turned away after arriving, because he’s black. While there are worse things than being uninvited after arriving at a party, the incident was symptomatic of an underlying insecurity or animus based on race.

As my friend recounted the event, “The underpinnings of unfair discrimination are obvious.” Indeed they are obvious, and they speak volumes about the dearth of character and lack of humanity of the one who objected to his presence. My friend, Michael Strickland, who gave me permission to use his name and relate his experience, elaborated, “Racism is a cancer — it spreads.” Indeed it can, unless we proactively work to curtail it.

I genuinely hope everyone perusing this column is as repulsed by the insensitivity, abject stupidity and classless actions of one person against Michael as I am. I would further hope that each of you forward this column to anyone you know who may manifest similar tendencies to ostracize, diminish or exclude anyone based on something as superficial as physiological differences. Unlike some who harbor a somewhat fatalistic view of racists, presuming that they cannot be changed, I will forever be a believer in the fundamental goodness and teachability of mankind, regardless of socio-economic or cultural shortcomings that have stunted our growth regarding racist behavior.

Sometimes there’s a natural revulsion to “sensitivity training,” whether of a racial or sexist nature. Yet I am convinced that we all need more of it. Not to the point where we dance around and avoid issues, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder once accused us of all being “cowards” for ignoring issues of racism. Rather, to the end that increased sensitivity to the minor differences that distinguish us are sometimes used by the inhuman among us as wedges to separate us from those who are different, rather than as a glue to our common humanity.

Another way to put this issue in context is to look at other differences. What idiocy would be manifested by someone if they chose to discriminate based on eye color? Or hair color? Or any other physiological difference? Would we not collectively and individually look with scorn upon someone who did that, and see them as social illiterates and cretins? So why should that be any more idiotic than taking a similar  discriminatory approach to skin color? So what, we have differences! And thank heavens we do, for otherwise we would be a plain and boring race!

Regrettably, we observe with regularity bigoted attitudes manifested against people of different religions, as well. Is not religious bigotry as dehumanizing and ugly a human trait as racism? When we make categorical expressions of disdain toward a particular religion or the adherents to that religion, we’re manifesting the same superficial, classless and bereft-of-character generalizations that characterize racism.

The other night my son asked me what I thought of a certain Christian denomination. I told him I thought they were wonderful. After all how can we, unless we are bigots, be critical of any religious group that seeks to bring adherents closer to God, and expects of them to be more Christ like? When we look for the good, we will find it. If we choose to focus on negative experiences or people, we lose depth and quality from our character, and like the racist, “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”

If we’re going to overcome these ugly human traits of racism and bigotry, it takes work on both sides: increased understanding and humanity on the part of perpetrators to heal their hearts, and an increased sense of forgiveness and less harboring of a victim mentality on the part of those who may have been wronged. Both racism and bigotry are scourges on our society, and like Michael observes, are like “cancer” that can spread, unless each of us takes remedial steps to eradicate them.

After all, in spite of any political, religious, racial or cultural differences, are we not all ultimately brothers and sisters in this mortal sojourn? As such, we may all have our little “sibling spats” periodically, but the big picture still should always and ultimately come down to mutual love, concern and respect, for each other, and all of humanity.

Award-winning columnist Richard Larsen of Pocatello is president of the brokerage firm Larsen Financial. He graduated from Idaho State Univeristy with degrees in history and political science.