As Virginia’s Democratic governor learned to his regret in recent days, a huge majority of Americans remain disgusted by the toxic bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan and all it stands for.
It is shocking to still have to refer to the KKK in the present tense in 2019. Most people reviled it in 1919 when it had crept back into life after first being crushed in the 1870s. From 1915 into the 1920s, it revived a terrorist campaign of racist lynchings and intimidation in the South. In the Pacific Northwest — including places like Astoria and Bellingham — the KKK gained a foothold with virulent attacks on Asian immigrants and others who competed for blue-collar jobs.
The KKK’s notorious white-sheet, pointy-hood costume is as contemptible for mainstream Americans as the Nazi swastika is for modern Germans. Along with “black face” minstrel shows and Jim Crow laws, KKK garb was a deliberate effort to frighten and marginalize minority groups. The enduring power of these symbols extends far beyond the few thousand “official members” of the KKK as it persists today.
Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam was old enough to know better when he somehow allowed himself to be associated with KKK/black face activity while in medical school. There is no occasion when such symbology is humorous or acceptable. Northam’s entanglement with it recalls the Democratic Party’s long and shameful immersion in segregationist politics and messaging. If the facts are as they appear, he must resign.
In northwestern Oregon, it was appalling to see the despicable hood appear on photocopied sheets in Astoria, with the invitation “The KKK Wants You!” Considering Oregon’s racist and xenophobic past, this apparent recruitment campaign was a vicious slap in the face for all who revere our multicultural and inclusive society.
The Long Beach Peninsula man who stepped up to take responsibility for the fliers is, like Northam, old enough to know better. If his aim was to gain attention by being provocative, he certainly achieved his goal. In an interview with the Chinook Observer, he backpedaled. His misjudgment, if it remains an isolated incident, should not taint his life.
It should, however, serve as a reminder of how easily a vile ideology can spread. Social media promised a glorious future, where freedom and democracy and even kindness could be spread far and wide. In reality, there’s far less positivity on the internet than hateful and ignorant messages that are too easily picked up by impressionable youth and adults alike. We should all be wary that just because we don’t see flyers or hoods in our communities doesn’t mean the programming isn’t happening.
There is a larger problem beyond one man’s foray into off-limits bigotry as a means to, in the Astoria Police Department’s characterization, “seek politically like-minded people to engage in discussion and discourse.” The use of KKK imagery and other dog whistles is percolating through some segments of the American populace, signaling a disturbing normalization of discredited notions of white supremacy and racial purity. Such messages occasionally find a receptive audience among underemployed and directionless youths on the fringe of society.
Some discontent is inevitable in any culture. But while we slap down overtly racist overtures like the KKK flier, we must at the same time continue striving to provide meaningful living-wage jobs to all who need them. It is dangerous and corrosive to write off anyone. Those who feel marginalized and disrespected are quicker to disrespect others, placing social equilibrium at risk.