Guest Editorial: When Expressions of Prejudice Are Up Close and Personal

Back in the summer I was behind a pickup truck at the stop light in Newark Valley. There were a variety of stickers on the back window. I’m always curious about these because I am not afraid to let the public know about my viewpoints by what I put on my vehicles. 

It was a series of hands with the middle finger in prominent display targeting the following groups or entities: Diversity, Islam, Immigrants (?), Jews, Everyone (?) and .gov. There were two other signs as well: “White Lives Matter” and “It Ain’t Illegal to be White … Yet”. (I’m not entirely sure about two of the targeted groups, which is the reason for the question mark).

More recently there has been much publicity given to a swastika painted on the side of a home in the Village of Owego along with a swastika symbol made of stone on the lawn. I recently learned about a fellow in Groton, N.Y., back in 2015, who had a variety of signs in his lawn expressing his opinion on a number of issues. One of them had a couple swastikas included with the message. In both cases these people had a legitimate right to express themselves since they were on private property. In all likelihood the person with the middle finger stickers has the same right. 

Although this is probably not widely known, I learned from a friend who had seen a type of “Proud Boy” display across the road from two minority owned businesses on upper Front Street in Owego. The Proud Boys are a Neo-fascist group started in 2016 that has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The swastika on the home elicited a variety of reactions from the local population: concern, disgust, confusion; how could anyone in this part of the country align themselves with a symbol that represents some of the worst actions ever taken by humans against fellow human beings? (At least in modern times.) The symbol was reported as being anti-Semitic, but the Nazi’s were equal opportunity bigots. They viewed these other groups as not deserving a place on the planet: Roma (gypsies), communists, socialists, trade unionist, homosexuals, and special needs people. Slavs were only useful for slave labor until they could be exterminated in some fashion and supplanted by solid representatives of the Nordic race.

I have made quite a study of these attitudes in part because I have some “skin in the game.” One of my first pieces of family/local history came when I heard my grandfather make a joking reference to the “Koo Koo Klan”. Come to find out that back in the 1920’s the local Klan came and burned a cross on the farm. Why would they do such a thing? He had three strikes against him: he was Polish, an immigrant, and Roman Catholic. Two other Eastern European farmers got similar treatment, and an Irish immigrant down in Montrose, Pa. had a visit from the “hooded” Welcome Wagon. 

This influx of immigrant farmers had been preceded by a variety of immigrants coming to the Southern Tier to work in the expanding Endicott Johnson Shoe factories. Four men in 1901 saw an opportunity in real estate for what would become the Village of Endicott. 

Forming the Endicott Land Company, they purchased land from the river to the tracks and up to the border with Endwell. To keep the neighborhood respectable, clause #5 in the deed stipulated that the land was not to be sold to “Italian or colored persons.” 

At that time, many people felt that Italians should not be lumped together with other members of the Caucasian race. The Johnson Brothers felt that their workers should have homes of their own. This led to the creation of the Johnson Land Company, which bought three farms north of the tracks. There were no restrictions on who could purchase these lots. 

The Second Coming of the Klan in the 1920’s was a national phenomenon with plenty of local participants. Rumors of Klan activity started in late 1922 culminating in a cross burning in Evergreen Cemetery in late December of that year. A cross was burnt on a raft that floated down the Susquehanna across from Ross Street in August 1923. There were established chapters in three different towns in the county and Binghamton was the New York State headquarters for a brief period of time. 

As anyone who knows anything can attest, simply because the Klan or some other white power group isn’t meeting in a local community hall, does not mean that numerous people don’t hold beliefs that are in alignment. At periodic times these attitudes break through the surface like a pestilence that breaks through your skin. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1967, the Binghamton Press at the time reported that many locals were practically celebrating. The Press avoided printing “man in the street” responses because so many of them were so vile and disturbing. 

In 1993 a controversy erupted over the inclusion in a pamphlet produced by the Broome County Chamber of Commerce that included a reference to Binghamton being the state headquarters for the Klan for a period of time. Derrick Span, the President of the Broome County Urban League, took exception to this being one of the “bullet points” for Broome County history. How communities or countries deal with these “dark chapters” in their history is a subject that should be debated on a more regular basis. 

The positive part of this is that an exchange of viewpoints appeared in the Press and Sun Bulletin for the next six months. This culminated in a viewpoint from a Long Island transplant, Andrea Riolo, who didn’t mince words when it came to her view of this area’s attitudes toward diversity:

“My family and I moved here recently from Long Island, and we have been shocked by blatant public displays of prejudice in what appears on the surface to be a bucolic, rural area centered around a relatively clean, untroubled city, whose biggest news focuses on the economy and collapsed roofs.”

She went on to describe a number of “incidents”. She saw a group of Asian men and children enjoying the sunshine in Johnson City when a number of young, white males came by in a car and shouted, “Why don’t you all go back where you came from?” In the Mall, bands of roving white teenagers called out racial insults to non-white kids. In Endwell, employees in their three-piece suits “snicker maliciously and mutter racial slurs as a Latina, struggling with her toddlers, enters a local store.” Laotian kids are told, “Go back to Korea.” Black students at a local school hear the “N” word shouted at them from white boys passing in cars.

For Riolo, this took on a personal affront:

“And my own children are subjects of harassment because they continue to choose friends, not based on the color of their skin, but on shared interests. As amazing as it may seem to people here, my children, never, in the eight years we lived on culturally-mixed Long Island, heard the ‘N’ word spoken in school, on the playground, or in their friends’ homes. In the School of Racial Relations, Broome County is still in kindergarten.”

In February of 2000, three Binghamton University wrestlers were arrested for assaulting a group of Korean students outside the College-in-the-Woods dormitory complex. The students were referred to as “chinks” and one student had a fractured skull and hemorrhaging. The three arrested were from Walton, Waverly, and Seaford (Long Island). An editorial in the Press and Sun-Bulletin gave this assessment: 

“So, while Broome County law enforcement and the FBI do their criminal investigations, it may be time for us to look into our own hearts as well, to see if ultimately the problem began long before these students ever stepped foot on the Binghamton University campus.” 

Although millions of Americans, including myself, felt that the election of Barack Obama would be a watershed event that would put these traits of our national character into continual diminution, this would not be the case. Effigies of Obama were burned in a variety of places and closer to home; an inter-racial couple in Apolacon Township in Pennsylvania, Archie Johnson and Ruth Cohen, woke up on the morning of Nov. 6, 2008 to see the remnants of a cross that had been burned on their lawn. The stress of this incident caused Archie to have a stroke from which he never fully recovered. He passed away in the spring of 2018.

With a cosmopolitan atmosphere and the site of two major educational institutions, one would think that Ithaca would be a virtual paradise for diversity and inter-racial harmony. Unfortunately, this area is not immune to the attitudes and values that would prompt someone to grab a spray can and put a swastika on the side of a house. In 1997, Jose Paulino came to the Ithaca City School district as a minority affairs assistant. He left after a year extremely disillusioned and in a Letter to the Editor written about a year later, and sent to the Ithaca Journal, he made this remark, “I was isolated within the high school as a staff member of color and by a complete lack of support from my administration.”

About a year later, a graduation party in the Town of Caroline became a racially motivated gang assault on two young men, one white and one black. The white victim suffered severe injuries. The judge in the case had this to say, “Other than the lack of white sheets, this has all the markings of the KKK. All the threats. All the terrorism. All the racism.” In February 1999, Richard C. Black, an Ithaca resident, described blatant racism being professed in a discussion between two barbers in downtown Ithaca. 

More recently, in the winter of 2018, a controversy over the casting of “The Hunchback of Nortre Dame” became extremely hostile and gained national attention. Vile messages and threats were posted online; the mother of one of the cast members spent hundreds of dollars to improve the security of her home. This was demand #9 from cast members who felt disenfranchised by the school’s musical program:

STOP ignoring and denying that you have created a white centered program run by white adults for the benefit of white children. White children should also be educated about interrupting these practices of White supremacy. Hollow lip service about equality is shameful and the eyes of our concerned community are now focused on you.”

These are all local manifestations of the general attitudes and values that can be found in Western Civilization. The Old Testament is a great blueprint for continual war against the “infidels”. Columbus began his genocidal war against native peoples very early and this became the pattern for most other colonizers. Martin Luther certainly had plenty of justification taking on the power and corruption of the Catholic Church; but his hatred of Catholics, Jews and Moslems isn’t anything one would want to read from a church pulpit today. The Klan of the 1920’s even used some of his phraseology in their literature. And lets not forget slavery, which was another injustice given sanction in the Old Testament. 

Describing the Trump administration as a disastrous travesty of a clown show is an understatement. Besides the incompetence, lack of civility and disregard for the norms one has come to expect from the democracies of the world, he has given tacit approval and sometimes not so tacit approval for racism, xenophobia, sexism, and misogyny. Incidents in all these areas began to expand even before he officially took office. It has helped incite mass shootings in synagogues, black churches along with foiled terrorist plots usually being planned by white people. Historians a hundred years from now will still be trying to understand how America made this descent into its baser elements.

Although I don’t see much hope for change from the homeowner in Owego or the driver of the pickup truck, I am still hopeful for the country, and there are many times where prejudiced attitudes do a 180. There is change taking place in the country and the changes are deep and profound. 

The demographic changes to the nation’s DNA, which began with the influx of Irish in the 1840’s and accelerated with the surge of humanity from Eastern and Southern Europe a half century later, has continued throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. This mixing of peoples from other parts of the world continued to the point that Caucasians will not be the major racial group within the borders of the U.S. To many in the “white race” this is terrifying and it is this fear that is driving the extremists to “take no prisoners” and support leaders who promise to “Make America Great Again” by leading us back to the white Protestant Christian norms that were supposedly the true intentions of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution. 

I am hopeful that this viewpoint will have fewer and fewer adherents and that our nation will use the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as the guideposts for the United States of America. 

2 Comments on "Guest Editorial: When Expressions of Prejudice Are Up Close and Personal"

  1. Anne Schaeffer | December 25, 2019 at 2:23 pm | Reply

    Thank you for this editorial. I hope and pray that we can come together as a region and country.

  2. Very interesting article on an issue that has held my interest almost my entire life. Not originally from this area, it is good to learn more, especially about Tioga County minorities. Also, besides the Italian E-J workers, what happened to African-Americans who could not buy property south of the tracks in Endicott?

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