Idaho Battles Image as Haven for Hate

A white-supremacist group marched here July 18. State has most hate groups per capita.

When someone says "Idaho," do you think: "First state with a Jewish governor; first state where a native American won statewide office; fourth state to allow women the right to vote; first state to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)?"

Or do you think: "Site of the shoot-out with white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge; home of James "Bo" Gritz, ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke's running mate in the 1992 presidential race; place where former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman moved after the O.J. Simpson trial; one of the first states to rescind its approval of the ERA?"

If you think about it at all - beyond the "Famous Potatoes" the license plates here boast - you're likely to think of the latter. Deservedly or not, Idaho today does not present the image - or the reality - of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism.

"We may be more tolerant than our image," says Karen Baker, executive editor of Boise's Idaho Statesman, the state's major newspaper. "But our image as a state that lacks diversity is grounded in fact. And that reality, along with other perceptions real and imagined, haunts us...."

In their writings and on their Internet sites, some extremists depict the rural Northwest as a haven for white separatists. While this is not literally true, human rights activists warn that the presence of antigovernment militias and racist groups has the effect of creating a situation where minorities fear - or at least choose not to consider - living here. Thus does the image become the reality.

The state is 91 percent white, which means the proportion of racial and ethnic minorities is just one-third the national average. Only Montana has a lower racial diversity. More troubling, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the state has more "hate" groups per capita than any other state.

These facts have combined to hurt the Gem State economically. For all its natural beauty, Idaho's income from tourism is far less than that of most other states. And as it moves from a resource economy based on timber and mining to high tech, companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Micron are finding it difficult to recruit and retain minority employees.

Neo-Nazi march

The image and reality was shown to the world over the weekend when about 90 members of the white-supremacist Aryan Nations, based in Hayden Lake, Idaho, marched through downtown Coeur d'Alene.

With the exception of a few minor arrests, some 120 police officers kept the peace as more than 1,000 demonstrators - many silent and sad, others violently vocal - lined the march route in protest.

Although the physical confrontation many had predicted did not occur, it was not a happy event for most Idahoans.

"All I can do is apologize for the ignorance of some of the people in my community," said Gordon Ormesher, a firefighter in nearby Spokane, Wash., who's lived all his life in Coeur d'Alene.

In his State of the State address this year, Gov. Phil Batt (R) complained of "unwarranted and unfair attention because of a handful of malcontents and screwballs who have chosen to make their home here."

Others note that while membership in the Aryan Nations group, whose "Christian Identity" theology depicts Jews as the "children of darkness" and people of color as sub-human, may be small, it has been linked to several race- and religion-based killings. This includes the recent lynch-style murder of a black man in Jasper, Texas.

"This is a group with a history of violence," says Eric Ward of the Seattle-based Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment. "This is not just a group of wackos."

Adds Mr. Ward: "The Aryan Nations didn't bring racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia to the Northwest. It simply organizes what already exists."

Hewlett-Packard, which has some 4,000 employees in the Boise area, recently launched a "diversity initiative" designed to attract nonwhite employees. "Clearly, we have a problem recruiting people from outside of Idaho," says company spokesman Mark Falconer. The idea, he says, is to find ways in which Hewlett-Packard "can become a more inclusive employer.

"We need those diverse teams to market our products for global customers," says Mr. Falconer.

Beyond concerns for public impressions and whatever economic impact those might have, many Idahoans believe it's important to acknowledge the reality behind the image.

"I've lived in Coeur d'Alene most of my life, and I know there are a lot of bigots here," said Gary Edwards as he stood along the route of the Aryan Nations' march, holding a hand-lettered sign warning of the "appeasement" of Nazis in the past. Mr. Edwards well remembers hearing the explosion when the home of human rights activist Bill Wassmuth, who has since moved to Seattle, was bombed in 1986 by a white supremacist group.

Says Elaine Clark of Bonners Ferry, a white woman whose adult children's father is black: "I moved here two years ago, and my children won't come to visit me because they're afraid to."

Fighting racism

Still, there is no doubt that for every person here who salutes a swastika or distributes hate literature, there are many more who actively work to promote ethnic, racial, and religious harmony.

Idaho now has more than 100 grass-roots human rights groups.

"We have probably done more human rights things - more gutsy things - in northern Idaho than most cities have," says Skip Kuck, who organized a protest to the neo-Nazi march here. Ms. Kuck's group - mostly women - held hands in prayer in a church parking lot before taking a position along the parade route. When the Aryan Nations group - mostly men - passed by, they turned their backs in silent rebuke.

"Obviously there are pockets of bigotry," says newspaper editor Karen Baker. "But for the most part, it's a pretty tolerant place."

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