Is racism still an issue in North Idaho?
With Ruby Ridge to the north of
Sandpoint and the former Aryan Nations to the south, visitors often quiz
locals about the perception of racism and extremism in North Idaho.
Panhandle citizens are at times surprised by the questions. To many that
live in artistic, eclectic North Idaho, the questions seem out of place with
the area they have come to know as tolerant and neighborly. Most intolerant
areas drive visitors and new inhabitants away; Sandpoint and North Idaho
attracts with a booming tourist industry and fast-paced growth, and its
reputation for accepting one and all.
North Idaho has long been a
magnet for spirited people with vastly varying lifestyles and views. Long
before the current influx of people and tourists came the hippies. Artist Ed
Keinholz made Hope, Idaho his home in 1978, and soon afterward North Idaho
became known as an artist colony. While the state has consistently voted
Republican in national presidential elections, North Idaho has more mixed
political leanings. Obama signs are everywhere. Perhaps only Lewiston, with
its collegiate influences, has the same political outlooks.
The questions persist in spite
of local views. National coverage is beginning to show North Idaho in a
different light, but Ruby Ridge is revisited in documentaries and news
coverage year after year. There is still controversy about the handling by
the ATF with the arrest of Randy Weaver in 1992. Randy Weaver moved from
Iowa with his family to northern Idaho during the 1980s in order to
"home-school his children and escape what he and his wife Vicki saw as a
corrupted world." This is a common theme for many moving to the area.
According to Linda Spagon,
Director of Life Skills NW, serial abusers also choose North Idaho because
people here respect privacy. It is not uncommon to live on ten or more
acres, completely secluded from the rest of the world in North Idaho. Often,
abusers move to remote Idaho after living in five or six other states. As
they are caught and accused, they slip away to the next remote location.
This same rationale and thought process occurs to many extremists.
Idaho can be remote. Some
estimates place up to 75 percent of the land in North Idaho in federal or
state hands. The U.S. Census published only 15.6 people inhabit each square
mile in Idaho, compared to the national average of 79.6. Bonner County has
slightly more with 21 people per sq. mile, but Boundary County with only 8
has one of the lowest numbers in the state. Extremists look for such counts
when choosing an area to relocate to.
Add to that demographic the
homogenous make-up of North Idaho. With a population over 95 percent white,
racists have found the area alluring in the past. Residents say that
prejudice does not even come into their minds. Jed Sigman, owner of Advance
Childcare, one of Bonner County’s largest daycares, says, “We aren’t like
the south where prejudice is a part of daily life. We didn’t grow up even
seeing blacks or Hispanics. The thought of hating a person for their skin
color just didn’t even occur to us.”
When asked about the Aryan
Nations in the Coeur d’Alene area, Sandpoint resident Jaime Grainger stated
bluntly, “We kicked those bums out years ago.” The Aryan Nations compound
was effectively put out of business in Hayden, Idaho in 2000 when the
Southern Poverty Law Center won a $6.3 million judgment against the group.
They still operate, but not as openly as a decade ago. The founder of the
Aryan Nations, Richard Butler, moved to Idaho
from California, and it has been reported that his followers have relocated
Many do move here, sans prejudice, to live a
more natural life with greater privacy. Idahoans pride themselves on the
values of privacy and personal freedoms. In an unusual coalition, state GOP
members and the ACLU joined forces to modify or defeat the Patriot Act. In
Congress, Republican Governor Butch Otter was mostly conservative, but
showed slight libertarian leanings, as reflected in his opposition to the
Patriot Act. Other state Republicans shared this view.
The Idaho GOP platform
plank in 2004 made the issue clear:
"The Patriot Act is necessary to facilitate the
cooperation between law enforcement agencies. We support appropriate
amendments to limit the incursion upon personal freedoms, rights, and
liberties of American citizens."Other Idaho Republicans have also been vocal
in their opposition to the Patriot Act.
reasons are varied, but among other arguments, Idaho enjoys gun laws that
allow carry permits, and hunting is one of the big draws to the state. The
fear among many gun owners in Idaho is that the Patriot Act will lead to a
lessening of gun ownership rights.
Guns are important here. Guns are the reason Randy Weaver was targeted by
the ATF. After selling two sawed-off shotguns to a government informant, the
ATF attempted to arrest Weaver. Weaver maintained the shotguns were not
illegal, and in the ensuing standoff, both Weaver’s son and wife were
killed. With strong views of personal liberties and privacy prevalent in the
area, many local residents feel the government was the real villain at Ruby
Ridge, and local opinions have been broadcast over the national airwaves for
years. With such opinions part of the myth presented to the rest of America,
the nation gets a picture that North Idaho is not a tolerant region.
However, the subsequent investigation showed the ATF in a poor light. This,
combined with other national fiascos in Waco and other areas, has
Randy Weaver was not a native Idahoan. As the population grows, natives are
becoming a smaller majority. While most of North Idaho welcomes
visitors and newcomers, many find the changes distasteful. Some of the
loudest against change are not originally from Idaho. There are many groups
against various points of growth in North Idaho. NICAN, a group that opposes
the proposed Sand Creek Byway, has over 250 members, many who came to North
Idaho from other states. This is patently distasteful to some that grew up
locally. One home-grown inhabitant of Sagle, Idaho complained, “It’s not
that I don’t want them to be politically active, I just would like to see
people from here be the ones that make the decisions. I don’t like it that
they bring their attitudes from California or Oregon and try to make us just
like the place they wanted to get away from.”
Other long-time residents
remember wistfully how idyllic the area was just ten or fifteen years ago.
Jeane Fontaine, owner of Packages Plus in Sandpoint remembers wistfully, “It
sure was great here ten or fifteen years ago. I mean, growth is good, but
Sandpoint was such a nice small town. It’s still pretty nice, but it was
The influx of former policemen
like Mark Furman retiring to the area is also pointed out as a sign that the
area is racist. “Absurd!” said one former LA County Sheriff. “We came here
to get away from racism and crime. After twenty years working in Los
Angeles, where you see racism every day, we wanted to find a haven where we
would never see it again.”
How is racism handled in our
One school in Twin Falls uses
this lesson for elementary age children. To teach how racism feels to those
that suffer from prejudice and segregation, approximately 200 fifth graders
at Summit Elementary School in Twin Falls, Idaho are randomly assigned the
color green or yellow. Not allowed to speak to classmates of another color,
the point was further reinforced by segregating bathrooms. For the first
time in 16 years, in February 2008, a parent complained.
Literally dozens of articles on
the web have recently accused Planned Parenthood of Idaho of blatant racism,
though to believe everything printed on Google takes a leap of faith.
Earlier this year, when a southern Idaho radio talk show broadcast
inflammatory racist comments, dozens of blogs sprang up to denounce the show
and speaker. Typical of one such blog, the blogger wrote, “racist comments
have no place on public airwaves and no place in our communities.”
Recent years indicates a decline
in hate crimes in Idaho. The Idaho State Police published in 2003 that there
were 20 such incidents, down 54 percent from the previous year, and in 2005
hate crimes totaled 27 incidents, 20 in 2006, and 38 in 2007. These hate
crimes do not limit themselves to acts against blacks or Hispanics. In 2007,
an American Indian girl was beaten by an adult woman who shouted “white
power,” then the girl was subsequently harassed for the next several days by
the woman’s sons. According to statistics, hate crimes directed at native
Americans are as prevalent as against any other group in Idaho.
Skin color does often prompt
attacks, however, with comparatively low numbers reported, many back up the
premise that prejudice in North Idaho is not readily apparent. One blogger
writes, “I'm olive-skinned rather than
brown-skinned. I've lived in North Idaho (if you toss Lewiston into that
mix) for 25 years. I've experienced only one touch of prejudice in all that
time -- from a clueless dentist in Lewiston (1983) who kept making reference
to my ‘Italian’ heritage.”
Other states with similar
populations have similar numbers, and some states with smaller populations,
such as Vermont with a reputation for liberalism and tolerance, have higher
incidences of hate crimes. North Idaho has comparatively few hate crimes. In
2006, one incident was reported in Boundary County, two in Kootenai, and
none in Bonner County. Most were reported in southern Idaho.
In 2006, after 29 years of
debate, neighboring Washington adopted a law barring discrimination in the
workplace and in public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Idaho
has still not adopted such a law.
As recently as February 2007,
guest columnist Ryan West penned an article in the University of Idaho
newspaper, The Argonaut, titled: Racism a
reality in most of North Idaho. While
still in high school in North Idaho, Ryan remembers “hearing the
words “n——r” and “f——t” used in every other sentence by male and female
students.” He also writes, “I know that some people will read this and think
‘Well I grew up around there, and I never experienced that type of
behavior.’ That’s fine. They’re either fortunate or oblivious.”
White supremacists literature is
still mailed out to North Idaho residents from time to time, though less
frequently than in years past.
As the more tolerant attitudes
become part and parcel of local living, those with extremist views have
become less vocal espousing their views. There is no way to know how many
people are truly racist in North Idaho. However, controversies such as local
growth and the Sand Creek Byway have brought very derogatory attacks and
even lawsuits. If lack of tolerance for other’s views is the indicator, then
perhaps irrational suspicions are part of North Idaho lore. On the other
hand, one reason racism and extremism becomes part of any community is that
people are silent against intolerance. North Idaho has healthy debate over
many subjects. Education is ongoing, and people do speak out against
Racism seems to be slowly dying
in the rest of the nation, and North Idaho is no different. While it may
exist here, one rarely hears the word ‘nigger’ spoken in public. Most people
I know would stand up against any person brave enough to rant racist views
in open forum. Perhaps my circle just does not come into contact with that
circle often enough to know if racism is truly a problem in North Idaho.
Is racism alive in North Idaho?
Perhaps, but, as visitors often remind us, it is not accepted by the rest of
the nation, and should not be tolerated by we who live in North Idaho, even
if we are believers in personal privacy and liberties. With the presidential
election having the first viable female and black presidential candidates,
certainly few would say that times have not changed greatly. Racism is alive
in America, and certainly has reared its ugly head in North Idaho, but it
has been fought both through governmental processes and in the court of
North Idaho is a paradise as
much for its people as for its natural beauty. Prejudice and racism detract
from the soul of the people who live in North Idaho. Perhaps these attitudes
are on the wane, but without constant vigilance against those that advocate
hate, it will continue to be part of the myth of North Idaho.