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Shawn Vestal: Act against hate; Spokane deserves it

If you think the NAACP is an important organization with a vital mission, now would be an excellent time to show it.

If you think that the city’s ombudsman commission and oversight of the police department is a crucial enterprise, now would be an excellent time to show it.

If you think the Inland Northwest’s fraught history with regard to race puts a responsibility on the majority community to make it clear that we’re not a nice warm bed for bigotry, now would be an excellent time to show it.

Join. Donate. Apply. Take some of the energy that’s been directed toward you-know-who and hitch it to something positive.

Don’t do it for the reputation of Spokane. Don’t do it because all of this has embarrassed you in front of your urbane Seattle cousins. Don’t do it for the sometimes insecure and show-offy ways we try to insist that we are not the stereotype others may have of us.

Do it for us. Do it for the soul of the town. Do it for the children of color growing up here and for the next person who reports a hate crime under this cloud. Do it so your racist uncle doesn’t get the last word.

Or, if that’s not enough, do it because Chuck D said so. Here’s what Mr. D – leader of the revolutionary rap group Public Enemy – tweeted a couple weeks back: “Don’t like the NAACP Dolezal thing? Simple solution JOIN the NAACP …”

Do it, if you believe in equality and civil rights, for no other reason than to add your voice as a counterweight to the chorus of idiocy and hatred. A counterweight against your Facebook friend posting an exclamation-point-laden defense of the Confederate flag or a dumb pun about the NAACP: “National Association for the Advancement of Caucasian Pranksters?” A counterweight against the chain email from Super Mexy Conservative that gushes: “Will this story ever end?! I hope not. Every single little tidbit is better than the last!”

Better than the last! Christmas for bigots! If your feelings about the you-know-who story are something other than pure glee, now would be an excellent time to show it.

Naima Quarles-Burnley, the new president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, said her organization has heard from a lot of people in recent weeks with concerns, criticism and support. A part of that has included a “hateful firestorm.”

“Unfortunately, we’re getting thousands of comments from all over the world on our Facebook site and our website,” Quarles-Burnley said. “Using the N-word, talking about how our leadership is weak or indecisive. They’re either angry at us for not being more angry at Rachel, or saying her lack of integrity is indicative of the lack of integrity of all the NAACP officers.”

For some people, the story confirmed their most cynical views of race and justice in this country, and it helped them feel more comfortable spouting them. They rushed to conflate the fakery of an individual with the legitimacy of a cause. They talked about “hate crimes” against white people. They figured out ways to bring up the subject – in the context of police shootings of black men – of black-on-white crime, the discussion and distortion of which is a signifier and gateway drug for racists. They crowed, sustained in their view that institutional racism – which so many white people are bafflingly blind to – is a charade, a spray-tanned con against the true victims of racism: white people.

This is the “Shorty Can’t Breathe Either” take on race in America, and it certainly isn’t unique to the Inland Northwest. Witness the jaw-dropping spectacle of Fox News covering the Charleston church terrorism as part of its “War on Christians” narrative, or the insistence of the Wall Street Journal on the day after that shooting that “system and philosophy of institutional racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.”

This kind of “second-tier” racism – the kind espoused by people who insist they don’t have a racist bone in their body – flourishes here, and it fertilizes the soil for the ones who want to put a swastika on their arms or leave a bomb at a Martin Luther King Day march.

There are a lot of complicated corners in the issue of race in America. Ours is unique in some ways, and one of those is how our overwhelming whiteness puts race at a remove that would be impossible in more diverse communities. It is possible here for white people to live almost entirely among white people, which is to say: almost entirely cut off from the social reality of much of the country.

That lends an extra layer of oblivion to the privilege of whiteness here, one that can complicate the attitudes of the best-intentioned people as well as the worst. It makes some of us hypersensitive to race, and it makes others hyperinsensitive. And it creates so very many instances of what I am doing here – writing about race from the white dude’s perspective.

In that context, what should people do, if they want to do something more constructive than post Aunt Jemima jokes on Twitter?

Sign up. Volunteer. Donate. Apply. Support the ombudsman project – let City Hall know that it cannot fall into disarray. Support the goals of the NAACP, which will mark a century of existence in Spokane in just five years. Fight the drift toward cynicism. Recognize the limitations of your own experience, listen to those who aren’t listened to enough, don’t shrug off ugly jokes, and reject shallow ignorance.

Don’t do it for other people – do it for us. Do it for the soul of the town, and the children of color growing up here now, and the next person who reports a hate crime, who will not deserve the side-eye that some will now feel entitled to give them.

Do it to prove Quarles-Burnley right: “Even in difficult situations, you can have some good come out of it.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.