Idahoans should look beyond blatant examples of racism, such as white supremacists, and look at everyday signs hidden from view, Northwest civil rights leader Bill Wassmuth says.
"We can't ignore the racism and discrimination that still exists in society, from vocal extremists to ordinary bigotry," said Wassmuth, executive director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.The coalition is a Seattle-based organization that monitors hate groups and assists communities in combatting prejudice. Wassmuth spoke at Boise State University Friday to a gathering sponsored by the student body.
Wassmuth pointed to a recent church defacing in Boise, a racist radio show in Spokane and an alleged attempt to bomb minority and gay bars in Seattle as examples of visible hate activity. Several years ago, racists bombed Wassmuth's former home in Coeur d'Alene, causing no injuries.
"But we shouldn't use the supremacist groups as scapegoats," he said. "Let's not let the dramatic examples of bigotry blind us to the common, everyday occurrences."
As an example, Wassmuth, a former Catholic priest, noted a perceived tendency toward "Japanese bashing," which he said grows out of resentment of that nation's growing American investments.
"We feel we're losing, but who's selling?" he said. "Bigotry is based on fear and insecurity.
"My major concern is if we suffer a serious economic setback. Economics and racism and bigotry are often intertwined - if people start having economic setbacks, they're going to look for people to blame."
Other trends in society contain racist elements, he said.
"The war on drugs is a war on people of color, although the majority of drugs are consumed by Anglos in suburbs where it's not as visible," he said. "But the response is to go after groups that are easily identifiable, such as people of color.
"English-only laws generally are bigoted. They're phrased in such a way as to keep people from entering society if they don't speak English.
"If you're sitting in a room with people of different races, interact with them, talk to them," he said. "There's more diversity among us, and that's challenging to some people but difficult for some people to accept."