Sometimes the hostility is indirect, as when officials in the next-door town of Greenville told the organizer of a proposed July 18 BLM event that she would need a $1 million insurance policy. (They backed down, she told me, after being contacted by the local weekly newspaper and criticized in the community.) The town supervisor didn’t respond to my requests to discuss the situation.
At other times, the hostility is more explicit. When a white woman in Cobleskill, in neighboring Schoharie County, tried recently to quietly organize a BLM event, a local businessman announced the effort on Facebook, prompting such threatening comments that she ended up dropping her plans. On June 11, a mainly white group of Black Lives Matter marchers in the town of Kinderhook, in nearby Columbia County, were threatened by a white couple brandishing a gun, according to Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson. Johnson, who is Black, and who participated in the march, said in a video he posted on Facebook that one police officer told him that if the marchers were concerned for their safety, they should “walk down the road.” Johnson said that the incident illustrated “the reason for these protests.”
What’s happening here in my heavily white corner of rural America is hardly unique. But it has brought home for me the extent to which the push for a non-racist society has to be argued over and fought out not just in big cities like New York and Minneapolis but also in every small town in the country. It has also led me to think about how often white public officials may not even be aware of their true feelings.
Sooner or later, however, someone lets the cat out of the bag.
As one example, in mid-June, a Black-led group called the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition asked the village of Catskill to allow them to paint “Black Lives Matter” on Main Street, as has been done in a variety of cities across the country. Catskill, including the village and several hamlets, has a population of close to 12,000, of which about 15 percent are Black and Latino, and is the county seat. In response, the trustees, all of whom are white, proposed that the painting be done on a side street or that a banner be substituted.
When the group rejected this proposal, saying that they wanted to “link Catskill with the broader national movement,” the trustees responded, in effect, that things had gone far enough: It was a banner or nothing. In a lengthy statement, the trustees claimed that the street painting, a petition in favor of which has gathered nearly 4,000 signatures, would interfere with traffic and harm business. Not wise enough to leave things there, they also claimed that this “interference with the daily vitality of our town” would “severely erode” support for the BLM movement.
In other words, as I read it: We know what’s best, and you people are being too pushy.
I wasn’t the only one. Claire Cousin, a member of the Housing Coalition and the chair of another social justice group, said that she was angry about the statement for several reasons, including the fact that it suggested that the trustees feel their Black constituents “aren’t smart enough to understand what they’re saying.” In her opinion, she said, the statement showed the town’s long-standing “underlying racism,” which is only now beginning to be confronted.
At a meeting of the village trustees a few days after their statement, a self-identified white local resident (nonofficial participants were attending by phone) suggested that the trustees might want to think of the street painting as “part of reparations” to the Black community. His suggestion was brushed off, as was that of a self-identified Black resident who proposed that the board consider taking a racism-training course.
The furthest the chair of the trustees went was to say that the village was still “in conversation” with the group who wanted to do the street painting.
Cousin said that the issue of the street painting is “definitely not going to die.” But even if the painting doesn’t get done, she added, “they are going to hear from us on other matters.”
At the same time that this issue was playing out, the Greene County Legislature approved, in a June committee meeting, a resolution that conflated local opposition to the state’s coronavirus regulations with objections to the Black Lives Matter movement. The resolution, after describing how responsible the county had been and how unreasonable the state government was being regarding Covid-19, veered off into arguing that “a single tragic death” had led to a situation in which “looters in many parts of the country, seemingly, were allowed free rein, while honest store and business owners were chastised, even arrested” for opening their businesses.
My own town’s representative to the legislature told me she supported the resolution’s position on the coronavirus. But, she said, she regarded the paragraph referring to Black Lives Matter as inappropriate, and it was for this reason that when the resolution came to the full board, she voted to against it.
“I understand Black people feeling discriminated against,” she said. Nonetheless, she said, “I don’t think Black lives matter any more than red lives or white lives. Every single life matters.” Citing an incident in Albany in which a Black liquor store owner appealed to looters not to destroy his store, she said that some people are using the Black Lives Matter movement “as an excuse to do horrible things. It’s just a good excuse to trash businesses.”
I’m ready to believe our representative when she says she has never discriminated against anyone in her personal life or in her family-owned business. I’m ready to also believe that most officials in other towns and at the county level feel the same.
Yet the fact remains that I’ve seen numerous racist posts on local Facebook pages, that local people I know have told me about racist incidents they’ve experienced, that there are no teachers of color in our local high school, and that there are few people of color in local governments and police forces.
I’m glad that people here are talking about Black Lives Matter, and that many people, both Black and white, are joining demonstrations and speaking up for the first time ever. But I’m worried that white officials are simply not ready to examine their personal and institutional racial biases. And I’m also worried that incidents like the one in Kinderhook suggest that it is only a matter of time until something really ugly happens.
It’s clear that in rural America, just as in Washington, D.C., we still have a long way to go.