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Racism in my college town

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I was greatly distressed to hear Bloomington, Indiana, where I matriculated for four years in the 1960s and ‘70s at Indiana University, has become the latest battleground in what’s becoming a national race war. 

Black human rights activist Vauhxx Booker was walking with friends by the Lake Monroe Reservoir near Bloomington on the Fourth of July when he was attacked by a group of white men, pinned to a tree, and threatened with lynching. 

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There’s no question the assault was racially motivated. The attackers shouted racial epithets, white lives matter, and called Booker’s white friends who pleaded with them to let him go n-lovers. Officers from the Department of Natural Resources were called, but no arrests were made for this obvious hate crime.

On July 6, a Black Lives Matter protest at the Monroe County Courthouse was broken up, a la Charlottesville, by a counter-protester ramming his car into the crowd. Two people were hospitalized.

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There’s always been a certain redneck element in Bloomington. The college kids refer to the townies as cutters in reference to the limestone quarries in the area which employs many of Bloomington’s citizens (refer to the film Breaking Away). 

The cutters and the students really live in two different worlds, although there are occasional conflicts. While I was there, a young Black woman selling encyclopedias door to door was murdered in nearby Martinsville, the former headquarters of the state Ku Klux Klan.

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As the police reporter for the campus newspaper’s city desk, I covered that story and another less tragic, but just as racially charged. A Liberian exchange student was toting a huge carpet through a shopping center parking lot. The roll was 20 feet long and about two feet thick. It’d take two stout men, one at each end, to carry it, but this guy had apparently hoisted it up on his shoulder himself and was marching out with it.

Two Bloomington cops approached the large, Black man and asked to see the receipt for the carpet. The Liberian student said he’d be happy to show them proof of purchase if they’d follow him back to his pickup truck and he had the opportunity to put the carpet down in the bed. He wasn’t interested in putting the carpet down, then having to pick it up again.

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The policemen insisted the Liberian produce the receipt immediately. Heated words were exchanged, and the cops tried to arrest him. They needed to call for backup. Looking back, the student was lucky to have survived.

The Liberian was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He called me at the Indiana Daily Student newsroom and told me the story. I contacted the arresting officers and heard their version, which didn’t vary much from the student’s. I’d been around the Bloomington Police Department’s breakroom enough to not be surprised by this incident. Racial slurs and threats against Black people fly around like wads of manure.

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I wrote a balanced piece. When it ran, there was outrage in the student body and the administration. The Dean of Students had a talk with the Police Chief. The charges were dropped.

The Liberian was very appreciative of my efforts and we became friends. Being from an all-white suburb, he was the first Black person I’d ever really known. 

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It’s said Black people don’t come from a learning culture. That certainly wasn’t the case with this man. I’ve never known anyone who thirsted more for knowledge. I think the reason the Liberian wanted to be my friend was because I was a Journalism major and he wanted to learn everything he could about American newspapers. The student pumped me for information. 

After this experience, I made my bones with the civil rights movement by signing up with the Congress of Racial Equality to do voter registration work in the Deep South. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I guess I was making the move from not racist to antiracist. I just knew I wanted to be on the side of equality.

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It’s hard to believe with all the evidence to the contrary in the news these days, but I really believe racism is in decline. Remember, we’re in the age of the cell-phone video cameras. Cops can’t get away with the shit they used to. I recall a time when it wasn’t even reported when police killed a Black person.

My grandfather was a terrible racist. He couldn’t refer to Black people without using the n-word and he definitely thought they were a lower form of humans. My father was more the separate-but-equal racist. He granted all mankind full humanity, but the colored ones should stay on their side of town. Don’t want none of that hue to rub off on my lily-white children.

As stated above, I don’t believe the next generation — me — is racist, but I must admit as a young man if I saw a Black man with a beautiful white woman, the hair would stand up on the back of my neck. When I saw President elect Barack Obama walk out onto the stage at Grant Park in Chicago, a place I’m very familiar with, with his family after his 2008 election, I got choked up and spewed tears of joy. I couldn’t believe a nation with the shameful racial history of the United States had just chosen a Black president.

Look at the racial mix at these Black Lives Matters rallies. Lotsa young, white faces even in places like Atlanta and Nashville. White cops, too. Remember Heather Heyer, the young southern white woman who stood up to the white supremacists in Charlottesville and paid for it with her life. After 400 years, have white Americans finally got it through their thick skulls that equality for some is equality for none?

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