Our Opinion: Combating racial hatred requires our vigilance

America was shocked to its core by images of white supremacists violently clashing with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia last August. That our countrymen, some chanting racist slogans and bearing symbols lifted from the iconography of Nazi Germany could hold such anti-American views — and worse, proudly proclaim them in front of TV cameras — demonstrated most dramatically a segment of the nation had sunken into a morass of hatred, vilification, and divisiveness. It was, in effect, a victory lap for a subgroup that had been flexing its political muscles for some time and now felt that it had been given permission to vent its feelings — the Aggrieved White Male.

The reasons for the emergence of this "movement" are as varied as the experts who examine it. Some ascribe their seething, abiding anger to a conviction that government is paying more attention to people of color than they; or that their taxes support the undeserving. Some believe that the empowerment of women and minorities has stripped them of their place at the top of the societal heap that they regard as their birthright. They resent "political correctness" as an attempt to muzzle their own First Amendment rights so as not to offend those lesser than themselves. If they are from the South, they may carry an extra chip on their shoulder about losing a war to maintain slavery and rip apart the nation that ended 152 years ago. Other races and creeds are as a convenient scapegoat.

The Eagle spoke to a national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (Eagle, November 30) who repeated the hackneyed excuse that the Klan protests because white people feel that they are a "stranger in their own country." If any group has a claim to be a stranger in its own country it is African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought here unwillingly in chains aboard slave ships. Self-pitying white men who dominate government and other positions of power don't have a realistic claim to victimhood, and instead of reinforcing those claims through demagoguery and disinformation, every effort should be made by society to disabuse them of their so-called grievances. Part of the American myth, and one to which this country has historically aspired with mixed success, is that we are a melting pot of races, creeds and cultures, and the persistent efforts of white supremacists to divide the nation by color is patently un-American and unpatriotic.

The fires of organized racism keep burning, but fortunately the flames have not yet scorched the verdant soil of the Berkshires. At least, if they have, they're staying underground. It could be that the traditions and long history of the Berkshires — a county that served as a stop on the fabled Underground Railway (the recently renovated Fitch-Hoose House in Dalton was one such stop) — and whose able young men volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War — doesn't provide fertile ground for hate groups to burgeon and flourish. If so, that is a blessing, but it is not a reason for complacency. The cancer of racism feeds on economic distress and a lack of hope — two conditions that are chronic in the Berkshires. For our area not to succumb to the kind of upheaval we see in other communities on TV, we must remain ever vigilant to the warning signs, as well as ready to step up and confront racist speech and acts in their incipient stages.

In The Eagle, Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn recalled a race-based fight at Pittsfield High School in 2000. Police found that students were being groomed and recruited by an adult who was a "full-blown white supremacist." By being fully aware of the problem in its nascent stages, the police were able to work with school officials and teachers to eradicate the toxin that could have infected the school and the community.

Pittsfield, and Berkshire County as well, have seen isolated incidents of anti-Semitism in recent years, largely through the drawing of the Nazi symbol. Prejudice against minorities often manifests itself in subtler ways that aren't going to make headlines or readily attract the notice of law authorities. Chief Wynn keeps a wary law enforcement eye on gangs and organized groups of all kinds and there are lone wolves to try to monitor as well.

That responsibility extends to everyone in the Berkshires. Racial hatred exists here, and complacency or denial could enable it to grow to the proportions that shocked and scarred communities like Charlottesville.


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