Racism right here

I think I became aware of race as an issue around my 10th birthday. Our family hosted “Friendly Town” guests. They were African-American children from Chicago who had signed up for vacations in Montana. They took the train from Chicago for about ten days living with host families in Montana. In preparation for becoming hosts, our parents spoke to us about the history of slavery and the injustices suffered by African-Americans. When our guests arrived, it was obvious that they were different than us. It wasn’t only the color of their skin, thy also spoke differently, had different slang, favored different foods and had different experiences to report. My parents had been active in the Civil Rights movement prior to this experience, joining the NAACP and speaking to us about racial justice. We watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the television news.

What is strange about my awareness of racial issues and injustice in my mind, however, is that I was, even after our Friendly Town experience, mostly unaware of the racial divide in our own home town. We lived in territory that had been the historic home of the Apsaalooke people, otherwise known as Crow Nation. When their reservation was downsized, most were forced to move south and east of our town, but there were a few who lived in our town and worked as sheepherders and lived in small houses near the edge of town. We visited Crow Fair in the summer and toured the Little Big Horn battlefield. But I was not particularly aware of the racial issues between Native Americans and European settlers as I grew up. Racial issues were, in my mind, reserved for places where African Americans lived in numbers - mostly down south and in the big Cities.

In college, I began to develop more understanding of how race and racism figured into my own story. There were a few Native American students and more talk of race. Our college was not very large, but it attracted students from all across the world, and had enough African American students to support a small Black Students’ Union.

A lot of my education on race and issues of racism came from the years when we moved to Chicago. Racial justice was built into the curriculum of our seminary. Our years in seminary coincided with that school’s first African-American president and relationships with the city’s African American community was strengthened through the addition of more African American students. All of us were encouraged to get out into the city and participate in consciousness-raising exercises.

I paid attention a half dozen years ago when Michael Brown, and 18-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. I have a friend who at the time was an interim pastor of a congregation in Ferguson and heard him tell of how people gathered for peaceful protests and marched through the streets, of how the police established a nightly curfew and of how the protests attracted people from out of town. As he reported to us, the protests would begin peacefully, but later, as day turned to night the protest became more violent, with the looting of businesses, vandalizing of vehicles, and confrontations with police.

But, once again, I had the luxury of thinking that these events were distant from where I live. It’s 950 miles from Rapid City to Saint Louis.

As June begins and the summer starts to heat up this year, however, things are different and it isn’t just the Covid-19 pandemic. Protests that started peacefully turned violent in Fargo ND on Saturday and yesterday there were rumors of bus loads of violent protestors heading from Fargo to Sioux Falls. Our Mayor issued an emergency statement as the National Guard was called out in Sioux Falls. George Floyd, the victim of a killing by a Minneapolis police officer while at least three other officers watched and did not intervene, is known to Rapid City residents. His uncle Selwyn Jones and his first cousin are members of our community. So far the protests in our town have been peaceful, but there is a lot more tension than I’ve felt before.

I know many of the participants in our Rapid City event, and I know how dedicated they are to maintaining peace. But if busloads of people are being brought to other cities as accelerators to cause violence, we aren’t that far away.

The bottom line isn’t violence and it isn’t fear that violence will come to our town. It is injustice. There is a long history of entrenched racism in law enforcement agencies in our country. You don’t have to go to large cities or places with more African American residents to encounter racial bias. You can hear it in the conversations in our town. I spend a significant amount of time with law enforcement agencies and people in our town and I have deep admiration for the officers who serve us. I have watched as our agencies have recruited a force that is more racially diverse than our general population. I have been with officers who were talking about the death of George Floyd and the failure of the officers to follow normal protocol. The officers with whom I spoke are in agreement that all four officers present should be arrested and charged with criminal behavior. They, and I, believe that our officers would not stand by if someone was caught up in the emotion of the moment and engaged in such dangerous behavior.

Racism is not going away in our country, despite significant efforts and generations of working for justice. Having racism stirred up and encouraged by leaders at the highest levels sickens me. I don’t know how we have come to this place. I wonder who will be the voice of reason and calm as the protests continue to expand.

The conversations stirred by the protests are essential conversations for our people. They are important and must continue if we are to become a nation with liberty and justice for all. And some of those conversations will be painful. May we find the courage to speak frankly of race and racism in our community.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!