When you were little, did you ever use a cuss word in front of your mother and get called on it, maybe even smacked? Maybe you defended yourself by saying, “But Dad says it.” Maybe your mother told you that just because Dad uses it doesn’t mean you can.
But that’s exactly what it does mean: If a person you respect cusses or talks about people in a derogatory way, that means it’s all right for you to talk that way, too. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot more use of derogatory language in America because those in the most respected government positions are using it, and if they can, anybody can.
Recently, a man of color was accosted while he was buying soap in a grocery store in Missoula by an oaf who told him if he washed a lot he could scrub that brown color off his skin.
Also recently, the U.S. representative from northwestern Iowa, Steve King, in an interview with the New York Times wondered when the term “white supremacist” become offensive.
Enough was enough, and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stripped King of all his committee assignments. At least two large Iowa newspapers called on King to resign from office. Besides being over-the-top offensive, they said, as a result of his remarks Iowa would no longer have a voice on the House Agricultural Committee, and there was no point in paying a gelding to do nothing positive for Iowa.
Because of the small percentage of people of color in northwestern Montana, it has for many years been wistfully seen as an ideal place to foster a white homeland. Less wistfully, Montanans have spent an enormous amount of energy resisting this movement.
About 30 years ago, there was a large meeting in the Noxon High School gym. The meeting was in response to the news that the white separatist group called the Aryan Nations wanted to move their headquarters from Hayden Lake, Idaho, to Sanders County. The Aryan Nations was an organization which included members of the KKK and The Brotherhood, a white supremacist organization of incarcerated felons.
There were then, as now, very few persons of color in Noxon, let alone Sanders County, but one of them worked at a bar owned by a logging family, and the other was to become welcomed into that family as a son-in-law. When their bartender was insulted by a white supremacist one night, the logging family had had enough. They, along with local church members and school teachers, formed an organization to combat white supremacy in general, and the impending arrival of the Aryan Nation in particular.
About 350 Sanders County citizens attended the meeting. Now, depending on where you’re from, 350 people may not be an impressive number, but in Noxon it was about the average attendance at a basketball game … a full house.
Two of the speakers were from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, close by the headquarters of the Aryan Nations. One was a Jewish real estate agent who talked not only about the fear he felt, but also about the negative economic consequences of having a hate group in the community — people did not want to buy houses because of the presence of the Aryans. The other was a Catholic priest who had been outspoken in his opposition to the cult. His home had been pipe-bombed, and he was alive only because there was a refrigerator between him and the bomb. The Aryans played for keeps.
Besides the 350 people gathered to oppose the Aryan Nations’ move, there were counter-demonstrators who marched around the crowd on the gym floor. I vividly remember in particular a slovenly man in his late 20s wearing a dirty T-shirt which didn’t quite cover his ample belly marching with a hand-painted sign which read, “White Pride.”
Racial confrontation increases when people feel safe about making derogatory comments about people who “look different,” first just in public and then to their faces. And then words turn into actions.
It is wrong for the president to legitimize this kind of behavior by his comments, and it is wrong for Americans to tolerate it. It is not funny, it is dangerous, and it diminishes America’s dignity and her moral standing with the nations of this world.
Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.