A look at racism in eastern Idaho 56 years after the civil rights movement
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Editor’s note: This column was originally posted Jan. 25, 2018. References to dates and current events have been updated.
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
That’s how Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his remarks to the crowd at the March on Washington 56 years ago.
We’re all familiar with portions of that speech, including the oft-quoted line, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Today, I would like to reference a less quoted passage from that speech.
“When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” Dr. King stated. “It is obvious today that America…has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
As we continue the longest government shutdown on record in our nation’s history over a dispute about a border wall and illegal immigration, is this statement from King still relevant for some groups of people? Is racism an issue in east Idaho and what do local minorities think? The latter question is the focus of this column.
I decided to start this discussion by talking with EastIdahoNews.com reporter, Natalia Hepworth. She was born in Jamaica and moved with her family to Rexburg when she was 8-years-old. She also has east Indian ancestry and comes from a multicultural household. Her dad is white (from Rexburg) and her mom is black and from Jamaica.
Have you ever felt judged by the color of your skin?
Hepworth recalled an experience she had in middle school. Every day for about a week, a kid on the bus said, “Go back to Africa.”
“I thought, First of all, I’m not even from Africa. So, you have it totally wrong kid. Later on, I told my parents. My parents taught me to never react to things like that,” Hepworth said.
JoEllen Morris lives in Rexburg with her husband and six kids. Morris is white and her husband, Mark, is black and has African ancestry. Morris says having children in an interracial marriage comes with challenges.
“People often assume that my children are adopted,” Morris says.
As an adult living in Idaho, Hepworth says she has never felt discriminated based on race or skin color, but says she is keenly aware of how different she is.
“Something I struggle with is thinking that if I wear my hair curly, people are going to have preconceived notions about my race,” Hepworth says. “Are people going to judge me because my hair is different? If I wear certain types of clothes, will people not see who I am on the inside? These are questions I ask myself everyday.”
Morris says her kids have paid more attention to their difference in skin color since they moved to eastern Idaho in 2014, but are proud of it.
“They make jokes about it sometimes with their friends,” says Morris. “But people in Rexburg are very positive and open-minded.”
How do other minority groups feel?
Liliana Vega has Mexican ancestry and teaches Diversity Education at the University of Idaho. She currently lives in Boise but was born and raised in Blackfoot.
Vega says racism is a problem in east Idaho and that she has been treated like a second class citizen her entire life.
“I remember very clearly in junior high, our school principal, our school counselor and the school officer following us all over the school,” Vega says. “Because there were a group of brown students hanging together, we immediately were classified or categorized as being in a gang.”
As an adult, Vega recalls walking into a store with a U of I shirt on. When she brought her groceries to the front of the store, the cashier asked if she was the janitor.
“In my head, I thought You gotta be kidding me!”
Vega cites numerous experiences like this from her life and the lives of others. Some involve bullying from white people.
Vega says she, too, constantly thinks about the way she dresses because she believes she is often viewed as uneducated.
“This is where white privilege comes into play. White people don’t have to think about this. It’s automatic for you guys,” Vega told me.
Amando Alvarez is a retired librarian in Blackfoot. He also has Mexican ancestry. He told me being a second-class citizen is something he has gotten used to.
He says, for example, that he used to write articles for The Blackfoot Morning News in defense of “his own people.”
“One character wrote a letter in response to one of my articles, saying ‘I’d be happy to buy you a one-way ticket back to Mexico,'” Alvarez remembers.
Alvarez says he is offended when people refer to him as “Mexican” or “Spanish” because he is an American citizen born in Idaho.
He says ignorance is at the core of racism in east Idaho because many people are unwilling to have a meaningful discussion about racism among minority groups.
“When people talk about racism, it’s usually a conversation about blacks and whites,” says Alvarez. “I think that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are taken for granted.”
Vega, on the other hand, prefers the word “Latina.” She says people feel threatened by Latinos because they are the largest minority group in Idaho.
“Systems are built to favor middle class white people. Racism is built on the notion of who has power. At the end of the day, white people have power over people of color,” says Vega.
What is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?
Alvarez says those who prefer the term “Hispanic” are claiming a link to Spain. He says the Spaniards invaded Mexico back in the day. So, some feel the term “Hispanic” is a symbol of oppression. Latino, on the other hand, is referring to Latin America.
“I prefer not to use the term “Hispanic” because it was a term designated to us (when the U.S. census was created),” says Vega. “It was created as a way to label people with brown skin.”
Both Vega and Alvarez say there is not an all-inclusive term for their group of people. The only way to know what the preferred term is for each person is to ask. Alvarez says he is fine with either term.
How is racial equality achieved?
When it comes to changing people’s attitudes about race, Alvarez feels that politics is the answer. He says Mexican-Americans need a leader.
“We don’t have a Martin Luther King. We need someone that can speak for us,” says Alvarez. “When the news media talks about DACA or the border, most of the time they don’t even have a Hispanic on the panel.”
Vega also feels getting people from minority groups in positions of leadership is an important step, but says before that can happen there needs to be a shift in the culture.
“People are more willing to accept the words of a white male than they are the words of a Latina,” says Vega. “As a Latina, I have to be careful what I say because it may be viewed as pulling the race card. If you can’t have honest discussions, change will never happen.”
Ultimately, however, Hepworth feels real change occurs when people realize who they are on the inside.
“My dad has always taught me to be my best self first. Then people will see that you’re making a positive difference,” says Hepworth.
For Morris, it boils down to identity and personal choice. As a white woman married to a man of African descent, she’s noticed many “black” men identify, first and foremost, as “black.” In her husband’s case, she says it’s about knowing, first and foremost, that he is a child of God. She feels that people of all walks of life come with preconceived notions toward others.
“We all carry around a little extra baggage with that, but at the end of the day we can divide ourselves from those preconceived notions and treat each other like people,” Morris says.