The Long Reach of Racism

In 1993 my family moved to a town that mostly hated us.

The town was in a rural county outside Tallahassee, FL. I was running the newsroom of the local ABC television affiliate.

We’d moved across the country from Boise, where I’d held a similar job.  In contrast to Idaho, rural living in north Florida meant Spanish Moss, kudzu, copperheads, and fireflies.

With eleven children in tow we had the distinction of being the largest family in our rural county.  We were also the only white family in the county with two adopted bi-racial children.

Not that I anticipated any problems.  It was the 90’s, after all.  The civil rights clashes of the 60’s had long since been resolved.  Besides, this was Florida, not Alabama.

We were naïve.

It turns out that about a year earlier a local court case had made big headlines.   A white couple in the county had been fostering a black child.  The child became available for adoption.  The couple, who were the only parents the child had ever known, wanted to adopt him.

Conflict ensued.

For those of you who have never lived there, in the South you tend to have white churches and black churches.

The white churches protested the adoption.  It simply wouldn’t do for white people to be raising a black child as their own.

The black churches protested the adoption.  A black child raised in a white home would be adrift between cultures, and would lose contact with his roots.

No one, it seemed supported the adoption, except for the prospective parents, and the Florida Department of Human Services.

In the end, the state caved.  The adoption was denied, and the child was sent to a new, and black, family in Tampa.

Both sides celebrated.  Southern-style common sense had prevailed.

And then, one year later, the Huston family arrived.

The ink was long dry on the adoption decrees that brought our biracial children into the family.  They were ours, and there was nothing the churches, or courts, could do about it.

There were no acts of violence against us, fortunately, but it’s safe to say that even in the hot and humid South one can still encounter extraordinary levels of frostiness.

Mainly we were just outsiders, or so we were told to our faces, deliberately trying to mess up things we didn’t understand.  A popular bumper sticker at the time—I’m not making this up—read “We don’t give a damn how you did things up north.”

We lived in north Florida for two years.  We made friends with two couples, one black and one white, and that was about it.  My wife home schooled one of our children for a year after some severe bullying.  Our high schoolers faced social challenges they had never contemplated in Boise.

I bring all this up because of a recent news story out of Florida where Andrew Gillum, who is black, recently became the state’s Democratic nominee to be governor.  Three days after the vote, Floridians were greeted with a robocall that began, “Well hello there.  I is Andrew Gillum.” The heavily accented voice had jungle drums and monkeys calling in the background.  The message went downhill from there.

In a show of unity, leaders of both parties said there was no place for such things in Florida politics.  Fair enough, except that it isn’t true.  The robocall didn’t produce itself.

Despite our liberty-and-justice-for-all values and foot-dragging social progress, fear and hate are still alive in the United States.  We humans are hard-wired to be afraid of what we don’t understand.  We remind ourselves that love can conquer the fear that divides us, but the reality is that love is a conscious choice, and fear is an unconscious reaction.

And in the battle between instinct and intellect, instinct is usually running up the score before intellect even realizes the game is underway.

Unconscionable people know this, and will happily use our own instincts against us for their personal gain.

Well, that’s the South for you.  Still fighting the Civil War.

Meanwhile, the Florida robocall was swiftly traced.  Its point of origin:  Sandpoint, Idaho.

Which is not exactly to our credit.


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