By Zach Hagadone
There was a time when Idahoans — particularly North Idahoans — weren’t afraid of talking about tough topics like social justice. That time is apparently gone, at least according to certain elements in the Idaho Legislature, led in part by Republican Reps. Heather Scott, of Blanchard, and Priscilla Giddings, of White Bird, who have helped froth and foam Idaho into the most totalitarian and white supremacist-coded legislation passed through the Statehouse in recent memory.
House Bill 377 — referred to by the Orwellian title, “Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Public Education” — proposes to make it illegal, on penalty of defunding, for schools to require students to “personally affirm, adopt or adhere” to a range of “tenets” “often found in ‘critical race theory.’” That latter term refers to an academic method of social science inquiry that analyzes how systemic, historic racism has been applied to perpetuate inequality in the law, economics and politics of the United States.
Critical race theory is not a faith with “tenets,” it is a conversation and debate about the past, rather than “indoctrination,” as many lawmakers say. Yet “small government” conservatives have deemed this avenue of historical investigation too dangerous for Idaho students and the state must protect them from untoward thoughts. This bill has passed through both the House and Senate, and now sits on the desk of Gov. Brad Little. Its aim is to stop a certain type of conversation from happening, even before it starts.
What seems to be so terrifying to a sizable number of conservatives is the notion that students will somehow be made to feel “inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin.”
Hailing Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s recent effort to enlist a personal flying squad of censorious thugs — a “task force” dedicated to “to protect[ing] our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism” — Giddings said the quiet part out loud in April:
“I appreciate the Lt. Gov. taking the initiative to push back against the flawed concept that white people are inherently racist and that our young people should be made to feel guilty for actions they have never committed and biases they have never displayed.”
Scott, for her part, routinely peddles falsehoods about a “social justice” and “critical race theory” curriculum that doesn’t even exist. In her newsletters, she is either woefully misinformed or actively lying when she tells supporters that Idaho schools will leverage federal dollars to flood classrooms with a suite of books intended to incite self-hatred and anti-American sentiment among students. No evidence has been presented that such curricula is being, or has ever been, considered for use in Idaho schools.
However, I can think of at least a few lawmakers who should feel guilty for actions they have committed and biases they have displayed — for instance, grinning happily on a parade float while holding up a Confederate Battle Flag, as Scott has done. But in their minds, these actions and biases should be considered “free speech,” to be protected by a law clearly written to protect racist speech from opposition while legally silencing challenges to it.
It takes no imagination to foresee how this law would be applied: students reporting on their teachers, and offended parents reporting to the state — made all the more insidious as it comes cloaked in the language of “nondiscrimination,” “free speech” and the fascistic word murder in the bill, which targets ideas deemed “contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens.”
This is nothing more than white flight from hard truth and a betrayal of the intellectual bravery demanded of citizens in a democratic republic.
Clearly, we have lost much of this courage. Digging in the local newspaper archives, made available digitally by the East Bonner County Library, it is obvious that the intersection of race, politics, economics and the law were top-of-mind for area residents going back to the early 1900s.
On Oct. 3, 1919, Pend d’Oreille Review Editor and Proprietor George R. Barker devoted more than a half a column in the second-to-lead piece on the “Negro Question Again,” which addressed a lynching in Omaha.
The uncredited article stated that the gross injustice of lynching flowed from the jurisprudential structures in place that encouraged “the delays of the courts and the subterfuges of the law” that fed the passions of “an excited populace.” A fine little piece of “critical race theory,” there.
The newspapers of the time are likewise filled with similar denunciations of lynchings throughout the 1920s and 1930s. By the late-1930s and into the ’40s, Sandpoint area papers became even more strident in their advocacy for what they called “social equality.” On April 12, 1935, the Northern Idaho News ran a piece chastising the South for its efforts to exclude Blacks from the franchise, writing that such voter suppression efforts belonged “to an outworn era in American history.”
On Sept. 11, 1936 — looking with trepidation on the rise of fascism and National Socialism in Europe — the Northern Idaho News printed a piece titled “Some Things We Have Escaped.”
The gist of the article was that the United States, while still suffering amid the Great Depression, could at least credit itself with avoiding the “pitfalls of nationalism, which nations like Italy and Germany have not, which might have led us into serious internal dissension.”
However, the unnamed author focused on the Ku Klux Klan and its adjacent ideologies as a particular threat to the stability of the country. The paper noted that as recently as May 1925 Klansmen in Bonners Ferry boasted of having 500 members, and “they expect to make this the strongest Klan county in the state.”
This was no idle brag. According to a database hosted by the historically Black liberal arts Tougaloo College near Jackson, Miss., Bonners Ferry, Clark Fork and Hoodoo were all “sundown towns” at various times, meaning people of color were at risk of their lives if found within city limits after dark.
An example: In the June 18, 1985 edition of the Daily Bee, former Idaho U.S. Rep. Compton I. White Jr. recounted the story of a near-fatal lynching of a Chinese man in Clark Fork that escalated into an all-out attack on the local Chinese population, during which people “made small bombs out of half sticks of dynamite” and “set out to the underground shelters of the Chinese and on opening each door, would light a fuse and throw in a bomb.”
Even in 1962, the Negro Motorist Green Book, which advised Black travelers where they could venture in relative safety, listed friendly locations in only eight communities in Idaho and only one north of Lewiston — that being Coeur d’Alene. Previous editions, going back to the 1930s, would only recommend two or three stops in the Gem State, and all of them in either Pocatello or Boise.
The Northern Idaho News writer in the Sept. 11, 1936 edition was aware of the corrosive effect of race hatred on Idaho, but also realized that with it came political, religious and economic baggage — all additionally freighted with blatant hypocrisy.
“The Klan in their literature stated that they were opposed to all manner of mobs and mob violence, yet they were indisputably guilty of mobbings almost as a regular thing,” the author wrote. “They said also that they were opposed to bolshevism, sovietism, anarchism, communism and every other ‘ism’ or cult that had for its object the overthrow of the government of the United States, and yet they, at one time, boasted that they were very near to control of our government in Washington.
“The Klan professed to be strongly Protestant, but they were never noted for their piety, in practice,” the article continued, adding later that, “A consideration of the history, activities and even malevolence, as well as the perverted nationalism of the Klan … should enable Americans to understand how Nazism in Germany, with its doctrine of Nordic superiority, and the denial of rights to the Jews, can control a national and transform its national ideals, once it gets control as rulers.”
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Every descriptor the Northern Idaho News applied to the Klan of the 1920s and ’30s can be overlaid with little if any updating to the current philosophy of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party at large — the wing in Idaho that marches to the sinister drum beat of legislators like Scott and Giddings, and kowtows to the theatrics of McGeachin.
Scott, as we know, doesn’t even try to hide her identification with that supposed “outworn era in American history,” given her penchant for the Confederacy. Yet she and others of her political ilk sink to a detestable level of disingenuousness by suggesting that critical analysis of historic racism is somehow inappropriate or even dangerous to “the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens.”
Let’s have no illusions here: This is in no way, shape or form an intellectually honest effort to protect the apparently fragile minds and feelings of white kids in Idaho. It is an attempt to eradicate challenges to a retrograde political faction allied with white supremacists across the nation.
Zach Hagadone is editor-in-chief of the Sandpoint Reader, a fourth-generation Bonner County local and holds a master’s degree in American history from Washington State University. His opinions are his own.
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