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Political Mercury

A white boy from rural Iowa finds out he’s hated — and that’s good

10/14/2015

The comedian Louis C.K. has this insightful bit about time machines. They’d be great for white men, because pretty much any number we hit on the dial — 1855 or 1950 — works OK for us.

But for African Americans and women, slide that time-travel lever too far back, and you may find yourself landless with no voting rights, or worse, in chains.

Me, though, who can hate a white kid from Carroll, Iowa? Now or then.

Back in the late 1980s, as I left western Iowa for the Northwestern University, I’d never experienced demographic or racial hate directed at me.

Many weekday evenings in my underclassman days at Northwestern, I’d join my friend Hayden to walk from the residence halls on the south side of the university to our north-campus fraternities for dinner. I was a Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Hayden would go on to the Northwestern chapter presidency of the historically Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau.

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ne night, as we walked back, Hayden and I noticed lines of African Americans, colorfully attired in clothing inspired by their ancestral continent, filing into the Alice Millar Chapel. Hayden and I were nothing if not shy. So we asked what was going on inside.

Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, was speaking. We joined the crowd, found seats as two of the few white people gathered to hear Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam’s over-arching philosophy could be described as black separatist. Its history is so littered with prejudice, though, that the Southern Poverty Law Center (the same organization that tracks the KKK) designates it as a hate group.

“[T]he Jews don’t like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler,” Farrakhan said in a radio interview, March 11, 1984. “Well, that’s a good name. Hitler was a very great man. He wasn’t a great man for me as a black person, but he was a great German. Now, I’m not proud of Hitler’s evils against Jewish people, but that’s a matter of record. He raised Germany up from nothing. Well, in a sense, you could say there’s a similarity in that we are raising our people up from nothing.”

I absorbed the hatred in that place of worship. I saw the ugly history that my friend has to face, in some way, every day, as a member of the Jewish faith. As a white man, a Protestant, I found myself in the rarest of destinations one wouldn’t select in Louis C.K.’s imagined time machine.

These memories surfaced with great clarity two weeks ago as I listed to Iowa State University students at a diversity forum held in the wake of a Cy-Hawk game-day incident outside Jack Trice Stadium. In the mid-afternoon before the game, angry tailgaters tore down signs, hurled slurs and threw spent beer cans at the roughly 30 to 40 college students, activists and their supporters, many of them Latino, gathered to protest Donald Trump.

Near the end, in the open-microphone session, something disturbing happened.

A gay student rose and said he didn’t want to hear evangelical Christians who think he’s going to hell speak on campus. Or, if they do, the university should place warning signs around the speech location.

A conservative kid, who waited some time for his chance at the microphone, said many students of like philosophical mind are furious with the way Joni Ernst and other leaders with right-leaning views are treated on campus. A Latino panel member called this conservative student “ignorant,” and the 600-member audience essentially shamed him away from the microphone. For what?

No wonder Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry The Cable Guy don’t want to play college campuses anymore.

We need to hear the hate speech so we understand its motivations, see its effects on the faces of those around us, so we can combat it. We can’t just pray the hate away. How can we fight what we don’t know? Hate breeds better in the backwater darkness, where bombs are wired and deadly fantasies reinforced, than on the front steps in the light of day.

Students should run to the hate, challenge it in their own words, rather than appeal to the masters of the Ivory Towers to keep distressing ideas from their too-sensitive ears, their too-rattled senses of self. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll.

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