Long-time political observer Betsy Russell recently wrote of some Idaho legislators’ efforts to stamp out the study of “racist concepts” in Idaho education. The problem is that there were elements of racism in Idaho from the very birth of the Idaho Territory in 1863 and some racist ideas still live with us to this very day. We must recognize and discuss racism, if we hope to eradicate it.
When Abraham Lincoln signed Idaho Territory into being on March 3, 1863, there were a large number of Confederate sympathizers within its borders. More came to settle after the Civil War ended. Since then, many Idahoans have bought into the mistaken concept that the Civil War was merely a fight over states’ rights and economics. In truth, it was primarily over the right of slave owners to continue profiting from the free labor of men and women forcibly brought to the country from Africa.
The states’ rights argument was afoot in our State when the Ku Klux Klan rose to respectable prominence in Idaho politics in the 1920s. A group of 350 KKK members paraded through downtown Boise on September 9, 1924. White supremacists set up in Hayden in the late 1970s and others burned crosses near Jerome in the early 1980s. The hate is still alive today. I have heard and seen it myself since the 1950s.
Those who made this land their home long before Columbus arrived have felt the sting of racism–broken treaties, forced migrations and massacres disguised as battles, such as the Bear River Massacre that killed over 270 members of the Shoshone Tribe in 1863. Even to this day, Native Americans face discriminatory treatment in parts of our State.
Asian Americans have also been subjected to hateful treatment from territorial days. Chinese immigrants made up almost 30% of Idaho’s population in 1870, but most left the State after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Idaho government officials supported the incarceration of many thousands of loyal Japanese Americans in 1942, including the Minidoka Camp just 6 miles from where I grew up. One of the young men from that camp, William Nakamura, died fighting for his country in Italy in 1944. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor 56 years later.
Many in the growing Hispanic population of Idaho have been subject to abuse for as long as I can remember. People who came to Idaho to do the backbreaking work of keeping our farms and dairies running, and whose kids have gone on to jobs in non-farm sectors, have not been given the thanks and respect they deserve for powering our economy.
Folks in each of these groups, and others, have all contributed to the marvelous patchwork of our State. They want the same things that motivate the rest of us–security for their families, the chance to give their kids a better life, harmony with their neighbors. They have not always gotten what they strive for, partly because of prejudicial attitudes of fellow Idahoans.
If we hope to have an atmosphere where all people in our State can enjoy the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is essential that we acknowledge where we, as a society, have fallen short. If we simply ignore grievous injustices to some of our people as a result of discriminatory treatment, we won’t have a basis to correct the wrongful conduct and move forward together for a better tomorrow. The effects of racism, either outright or unintentional, will not go away if we try to sweep it under the rug or if we hide it from our children.