Race Issues in ‘Fly-Over’ Country

By Kellyn Brown

The thorny issue of race recently surfaced on a national and local level. From a controversial national magazine cover to local assault accusations, it turns out there is little consensus on how to confront a topic that makes the media and its audience squirm.

For this newspaper, the grappling began after we posted on our Web site the first in a series of wire stories on two Marion men accused of threatening Asian mushroom pickers. The 20-somethings allegedly wielded a baseball bat and tire iron; fired shots in the air; threw beer bottles; all while yelling a series of racial slurs at the group of migrant workers. The men were arrested and charged with malicious intimidation.

The majority of our readers posting comments on the story were outraged by the incident in Marion. “We have a long, long way to go before fully understanding and accepting racial diversity,” one wrote. Another: “This perfectly illustrates the incredibly intolerant attitude some of our local boys seem to have.”

A few, however, adhered to a different opinion. Instead, they trumpeted the preservation of their white European heritage, suggested that certain minorities are running the country and “multiculturalism destroys everything.” Some of the comments were more disturbing. Not only do I ardently disagree, I was uncomfortable reading these views on our Web site. Thus, I quickly began deleting their comments to “protect” the majority of our readers from these opinions I judged to be offensive. The response to my well-intentioned Web editing surprised me.

While a few readers appreciated the parental-like purging, just as many, if not more, argued that the comments should be left alone. “People need to know just how much racial intolerance exists in Montana,” one argued.

So, after talking with my staff, I began leaving most of the comments up as long as they weren’t threatening, a murky prerequisite, and free from profanity or slurs.

Meanwhile, on a national and vastly larger scale, the media was dissecting the cover of the latest “New Yorker” magazine, where presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and his wife were shown in an illustration depicting the wild stereotypes and false rumors circulating against them: that he’s Muslim, she’s a terrorist and the couple is all-together unpatriotic. It was satire, as the magazine is well known to have a leftist bent, but that didn’t stop the media firestorm.

Critics panned the cartoon as offensive, racist and argued that, despite its intention to the contrary, it only “fueled some misconceptions” about the candidate. The problem is, they worried, that most people won’t get it – especially those who live in more rural areas, or what has been tastelessly dubbed “fly-over country.” They were referring to Montanans and our land-locked allies in the interior. To some folks on the coasts, we’re all the same.

How the population in predominately white states perceives minorities has become a case study for all sorts of commentary. Timothy Egan penned a column for the New York Times last week aimed at debunking the naive argument that residents of such states are both intolerant and impressionable. But in explaining Obama’s unexpected appeal in places like Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, he pointed out that “people who live in states with few blacks seem more open to the idea of a president who is not white. Perhaps race is more of an abstract, an ideal.” In contrast, he argued, in states where race relations have long been “complicated,” like Michigan, Obama is having trouble. Such analyses, while interesting, leave aside the race relations Montana has grappled with since its ratification between whites and Native Americans.

Maybe white states are less afraid of the unfamiliar. I hope not. I would rather believe that the majority of Montana voters are savvy, dissecting the issues hidden beneath the posturing and refusing to choose a candidate strictly out of party loyalty, or race for that matter.

I do agree with Egan, who argued that we “get it” as much as urban elites. We’re rural and mostly white. Yet we understand political satire and can even confront, head on, the unfortunate realities of race relations. Our “fly-over” status, fortunately, hasn’t insulated us like the big-city dwellers often perceive. And as the Marion incident – and the way our Web readers argued over it – shows us, we’re all grappling with these issues, on different levels and in myriad ways.