What does the renewed emphasis on the colors of our skins say about the content of our character?

SANDUSKY A little black girl escorted to school stands tall as a tomato whizzes by her head and hits
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

A little black girl escorted to school stands tall as a tomato whizzes by her head and hits a wall displaying the faded words, “Nigger” and “KKK.”

This Norman Rockwell image evokes a troubled time in American history as races, once separated, sought to coexist peacefully in schools, communities and the workplace.

Nearly 50 years later that struggle continues. A distorted use of the Rockwell image posted several times on a Web story about open enrollment at Perkins Schools is the most recent example of a resurgence in racism.

In the past year, the Sandusky area has endured national attention about on-duty Ohio State Highway Patrolmen involved in a KKK “prank” in which one dressed in a Klansman outfit while the other snapped pictures and sent them to other patrol posts.

Like other states in the nation seeing spikes in sightings of nooses, Sandusky had its own noose appearance at a factory in November. A black woman going to clock in for the work day saw it and experienced a flashback to an earlier time in which crosses burned in yards and nooses meant death and hate.

People are left asking why.

Undercurrent of racism

State and national experts say economic hard times cause hate to rise to the surface as people look for someone to blame. The Black and Hispanic populations are the usual targets.

“Things were good if you came of age in the 1950s, the mid-1970s,” said Gary Oates, associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. “You received your diploma and went to work at a factory for a good, solid career.”

That all changed when the industrial economy shifted to a service economy. People lost their jobs or were forced to take lower-paying jobs, often without benefits.

The mortgage crisis and skyrocketing foreclosure rates further burst the security people once held dear.

Racism swelled along with frustrations.

“The history of race relations in this country and elsewhere suggests that when the dominant majority begins to experience or actually experiences severe economic difficulties, it tends to look for scapegoats to explain away its predicament,” said Benjamin N. Muego, professor of political science and ethnic studies at BGSU Firelands.

He believes racism will continue for as long as the dominant majority is reluctant to reach out to various minority groups, especially those of color, to “disprove or dispel age-old stereotypes.”

Mark Potok, Southern Poverty Law Center director of the Intelligence Project, agreed with the notion that displaced blame is to blame for the racist poison his agency fights.

“Racism is alive and well in the United States,” he said. “There is no question that, as a society, we are re-segregating both educationally in the public schools and residentially. I think when the economy goes bad, it creates an opportunity for the propaganda of hate groups to advance. We hear it all the time directed toward immigrants for “stealing” our jobs or blame them for factories going overseas. The world is changing quickly; globalization has some real concrete effects on people ... hate groups take advantage of that.”

Potok said although it’s not 1954 anymore, when racism was the norm, he feels the nation as a whole has taken a backward jump in the little progress made since the fight for civil rights.

He said the incident in September at a school in Jena, La. — white teens hung nooses from a tree and the superintendent of the school characterized it as a prank — seems to have unearthed even more hate.

“The incident reflected a kind of mainstream white anger at black people,” Potok said. “The Jena incident provoked a real backlash. Thousands of racist comments erupted on mainstream, news Web sites mainly. I don’t think racism has (reverted) to the violent racism of the 1950s, but it’s very much there in people’s everyday language and political discourse.”

Rockwell painting racism

Though many Americans have grown accustomed to seeing, reading or hearing about Klansmen in robes or racial slurs tossed about, members of the Perkins and Sandusky communities were shocked when something as simple as open enrollment sparked a firestorm of racism.

Racial slurs superimposed on the Rockwell painting suggested Perkins residents — a predominantly white community adjacent to Sandusky, a more diversified city — did not want a further mixture of races in their school district.

Speech balloons appearing over top of the painting said, “Go back to your own side of town Monkey! We don’t want any trouble in our school systems! Well, it looks like I will be sending my kids to St. Mary’s now. I will NOT let them go to school with the trash that will be coming here. Your kind isn’t welcome in our district! This is a SAD day for our Perkins!”

Superintendent Jim Gunner said he believes few people would agree with the Rockwell distortion.

“I have had nothing but positive comments about Perkins Schools opening their doors to students from other school districts through open enrollment,” he said. “Both residents and non-residents alike have indicated they felt this was a positive step for the Perkins community and school district.”

Minority families in the district said they’ve felt welcomed, not disregarded by the district.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Perkins parent Tonya Petrick said. “I am black, my children are black, and they also attend Perkins schools. We have had no problems in the district. The teachers, administration and other families have welcomed us with open arms and continuous support. This picture is a lack of regard for others and there’s no doubt in my mind it represents a small group of people.”

Gunner agreed.

“This cartoon is a reflection of a small, radical minority ... not a reflection of the Perkins and Sandusky communities,” he said. “The vast majority of Perkins and Sandusky residents accept, cherish and honor the diversity that our communities offer.”

One word: Fear

Although unique in their upbringing, education and beliefs, local residents Wesley Poole, Clifton Frisby, Tondra Frisby, Jessica Ralph, Larrick Zirkle, Tracy Shoemo and Richard Koonce all describe the motivation behind the distorted painting with one word: Fear.

“People are fueled by fear,” said Zirkle, a member of Nehemiah Partners — an organization designed to promote unity. “The fear of no reprisals, the ability to hide behind their computers, to not show their faces. It’s sad to think there are people like that, but I also realize there is an underlying current that does need to be addressed in our society at large.”

Shoemo, pastor of Young World Ministries and a Sandusky school board member, said people in the community need to do more than “talk the talk.”

“We have a lot of good people in this town who have done a lot of good talk, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten,” he said. “It’s time to take a stand and not just talk the talk, but go forth, reach out. The community will see the good people reaching out to them and embracing them and who knows.”

Though the desire to bring the community together is strong, the group also agreed that a line needs to be drawn.

“I believe in open dialogue, sitting together and addressing issues in the community,” said community activist Richard Koonce. “But when you say things that are racially insensitive, those are the kinds of folks we don’t really need to hear from.”

Zirkle said the defaced Rockwell painting indicates there’s a “much bigger, deeper problem” in our community.

“But that doesn’t mean you don’t take the step, that you don’t move forward,” he said. “Instead of finding all these excuses to keep ourselves segregated and divided from each other, we can make our community so much stronger and so much better and truly it can be a beacon to other communities and states and the nation.”

Frisby, founder of Men of Action, said his organization and the Nehemiah Partners are all about reaching people in the community.

“We bring all types of businesses, churches, people, youth — not just white or black but all of our youth — together to really concentrate on the good that’s being done in the community,” he said.

Ralph, a 2001 Sandusky High School graduate, suggested that the key to breaking down racism is to instill in children an appreciation for people of all races.

“The efforts most of us in this room are involved in are reaching out to our children,” Koonce said. “We need to develop relationships from elementary until the time they graduate from high school.”

Zirkle said racism will always exist in some way or form, but how it’s dealt with is what counts.

“We saw the need for unity in the community, the need for it,” he said of Nehemiah Partners. “We continue to provide programs that are going create opportunities for people from different backgrounds, different cultures and different races to come together, to get to know each other and realize there’s nothing to fear in coming together.”

Shoemo said to address a problem, you need to hit it head on.

“We need to encourage people like this to speak up,” he said, pointing to the distorted artwork. “These are the people I want to reach out to. To sit down, not get upset and not want to fight, but sit with them and say, man, I really want to understand where you’re coming from. Let’s figure out why you feel this way, maybe we can help one another understand. We don’t have anything like that here because many of us pretend like racism doesn’t exist.”

Ralph said the racist mentality extends far beyond Sandusky City and Perkins Township limits.

“It’s a current underlying the whole United States of America, this racist thing that’s not blatant,” she said. “You go outside, meet face to face, not know it’s there, but on the inside, it is. All we can do is try to help our community as much as we can, but it’s really a societal thing that needs to be addressed nationwide.”

The local, state and national branches of the NAACP did not return phone calls or e-mails for comment on this story during a two-week period.

Koonce said he wasn’t surprised by the lack of attention from the organization whose mission is to “ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”

“It’s what I’ve been saying, we all have been saying all along,” he said. “A lot of people in this community seem to care more about titles and how far those titles are going to get them than they do about actually helping the community.”