Sunday, November 14, 2010
By Craig Strobel
(What follows is the full test of the guest editorial submitted by Craig Strobel to the Idaho State Journal. It was edited down to 800 words. This text represents the full extent of Strobel’s thoughts and intent. You can find the printed version at http://www.pocatelloshops.com/new_blogs/community/?p=4647)
On Friday of last week (October 29), an incident occurred on the Bannock county Clerk’s office that some in the media have branded a minor skirmish, a tempest in a teapot as it were. Several persons had gathered to check voting machines, including a representative of the Republican Party, Mr. Ralph Lillig, and a representative of the Democratic Party, Mr. John Perryman. Mr. Lillig told a long anecdote that included a comment about Fzther’s Day being the hardest holiday for Black children because they don’t know their fathers.
The comment offended Mr. Perryman and said so. Apparently Mr. Lillig contacted several persons who were in the room to apologize, as well as a representative of the local chapter of the NAACP. In the evening a press conference was called and a smattering of local media were on hand to hear statements from Mr. Perryman, Mr. Lillig, the President of the Pocatello chapter NAACP, Michael Pettaway, and Christopher Cooke, representing Pocatello: Too Great for Hate.
I had an opportunity to speak at length with Ralph and his wife at the press conference concerning what he said and the context in which it was said. His wife spoke with Pastor Jackie and me, and I spoke with him and his wife at length following the press conference. This is what I understand from him concerning the incident:
He was there at the clerk’s office as an official representative of the Republican Party to observe the voting machines. John Perryman was there as the official Democratic Party representative. Other people were also present. Mr. Lillig was relating a long story of various things and shared an anecdote that had occurred while he was working as a police officer in Los Angeles. Part of his job was to investigate hate crimes, and he actually has a lot more experience with Aryan Nation crimes than many of us hopefully ever will. At one point he was trying to sign up several young African-American men for something, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t give the names of their parents. An older African-American man came up to him and made the comment that many of these particular boys probably didn’t know who their fathers were. The man’s comments were reflecting on a particular tragic circumstance.
Mr. Lillig expressed to the press and to me that he has realized that his telling of that story in the particular context reflected poor judgment, and it provided offense to Mr. Perryman. I can only speak for myself, but I would like to make a statement as a representative of 2Great4Hatethat we are wiling to accept his apology and to further clarify the following:
- In our statement we did not mean to imply in any way that Mr. Lillig’s comments might be related to the despicable actions by any white supremacist group. We understand and accept the fact that he has worked against these groups in other capacities in his life.
- In no way do we wish to impugn his character, and if he is sincere in his apology and his explanation, then we accept his explanation of the context in which he made the comments and commend him for acknowledging his misstatements and his apologies to various members of our community.
- We trust that he understands the sensitive nature of the words we use and the stories we tell about one another, and that he has learned about what is appropriate and inappropriate. We trust that he has glimpsed how such anecdotes can be misconstrued and can hurt at deeper levels than those of which he might be aware.
- This is a lesson for all of us to increase our sensitivity to one another, and especially to those who are of a different ethnic, racial, religious, socio-economic or gender identity group from us. It is possible that this incident forced some parts of our community to engage one another who had not met before this time.
I identified myself as the author of the statement that Mr. Cooke read. Mr. Lillig is concerned that our statement as a group, set so close in time to the recent White Supremacist articles has painted him as one of the white supremacists. I take him at his word that he has observed the destructiveness of white supremacist groups and that he finds them as repugnant as we do.
I am not sure, however, that Mr. Lillig quite understands the reason for the offense taken against his joke or anecdote. Certainly, the incursion of white supremacist efforts so recently in our community should have at least given him pause to consider how his words might be received by persons in our community.
As a fourth-generation Idahoan, I am aware of the troubled past of race relations in our State. When I moved to Pocatello, I was impressed to find out that because of the presence of Union Pacific as an employer, Pocatello at one time was the most ethnically and racially diverse community in Idaho. Along with that diversity, however, came red-lining by local realtors and the ghetto-ization of non-whites into an area called the Triangle. During this time the Ku Klux Klan regularly conducted parades through town, including the streets of the Triangle. Kevin Marsh wrote about this history, which can be found at http://www.pocatelloshops.com/new_blogs/community/?p=4584.
Incredibly, as a testimony of the human spirit to overcome adversity and to form genuine community across the artificial divides that people erect between each other, a vital multi-cultural sub-community developed in Pocatello. The Lasting Legacy Monument at 3rd and Lander testifies to this community. The days of the KKK marches and red-lining are hopefully over, but our continued vigilance is necessary to continue the work of multi-cultural community-building, and to assure that the rights and dignity of all persons are protected.
It is because of this history and our commitment to establish a community based upon respect, diversity and tolerance that we must be aware of how our comments and words create a climate that fosters certain behaviors and attitudes. If we oppose the incursion of divisive and racist groups, we must not allow our comments to give the wrong impression that we will give aid or comfort to them in any way.
What Mr. Lillig and I both need to understand is that as members of a privileged group, like it or not, acknowledge it or not, what we say or do is part of the perceived norm of society. It behooves us to pay careful attention to how our attitudes and behaviors affect those persons who are not part of our normative class.
This was brought to my attention forcefully during my graduate school days when I attended a church in Oakland, California. This church was avowedly multi-ethnic and multi-racial. The pastor, a colleague and friend of mine, was Haitian-American, her husband was Chinese-American, and the congregation included people who had African ancestry in various forms: Jamaican, North American, Central American, immigrants from Africa, etc. The multiplicity of backgrounds was amazing. However, in our community they were looked upon simply as being Black. They were doctors, accountants, teachers, social workers, single parents, unemployed and fully-employed alike. However, on the streets they were identified primarily as being Black. As a consequence, they experienced things that I as a white person would never experience.
But it was also in the context of that faith-filled community that I experienced true grace and forgiveness extended to me. I was not judged according to my skin color nor was I lumped into a predetermined category of persons. I was loved and accepted simply for who I was. These persons understood the application of their faith, and they were willing to apply its teachings of love, mercy and forgiveness. But they knew their scripture, and they also insisted upon the application of its teachings on justice, accountability, and practicing what one preaches.
On Friday night at the press conference, I witnessed some members of our local African-American community extend words of forgiveness to Mr. Lillig. It was a grace-filled moment. But I also know that these persons know their Bible and that they will be watching for fruits that befit repentance. They know full well that “by their fruits you will know them.”
Therefore, I express my hope that Mr. Lillig is truly sorry for the comments he has made. I would offer the hope that Mr. Perryman might accept Mr. Lillig’s apology. Mr. Lillig, of course, has the bigger job ahead of him: to bear fruit. We all will be watching to see how his actions bear out his words.
A final word: I am not sure how much more political hay can be made out of expressing umbrage at each other. It is probably more politically expeditious to acknowledge the grievances committed, express true remorse, offer forgiveness, shake hands and move on to the important work of making our community one that is respectful in conversation, welcoming of diversity and tolerant of our differences. Democracy requires this, and true community thrives on nothing less.