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 Moscow, 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. Controversy continues over 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. Like many who move here, they were looking for an area far-removed from their neighbors to teach their children the lessons they felt important. This is often a goal for many teaching racist ideals.

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. Many 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, but it has been reported that his followers have relocated to Pennsylvania?

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 freedom. In an unusual coalition, state GOP members and the ACLU joined forces to modify or defeat the Patriot Act, which many here feel intrude on their ideals of personal privacy. 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.

The 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 ameliorated opinions.

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 paradise then.”

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 schools?

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 is further reinforced by segregating bathrooms. For the first time in 16 years, in February 2008, a parent complained.

How does the clergy handle racism in North Idaho?

Literally dozens of articles on the web have recently accused Planned Parenthood of Idaho of blatant racism, though to believe everything posted 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. The last mass mailing in Bonner went out to 6,000 residents in 1999. Though the mailings now are less in number and not as often, locals still receive them.

As the more tolerant attitudes become part and parcel of local living, those with extremist views have become less vocal espousing their opinions. 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 injustice.

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 ‘n’ word 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 public opinion.

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.