A racist billboard has appeared not far from my home. I first spotted it a couple of weeks ago. My initial reaction was revulsion. Then I was furious. I pulled my car over to see which sign company was displaying the message, ready to call them and complain.
Finding no name other than that of the racist group, I settled for jotting down the group’s Web address. I visited their site and found what I feared: the white race (with a capital W, thank you) is being ruined by African Americans, immigrants, Jews, gay and lesbian people, political correctness. It was repulsive.
I know better than to say I am not a racist. Every once in a while I am surprised and mortified by a thought that originates in my own head. But it’s fair to say that I strive not to be a racist, that I give frequent and focused attention to working toward magnanimity. I like the word multi-cultural. I see it as a good thing, as a goal. I want to befriend and learn from people different from me and I understand that they have much to offer. I believe in Jesse Jackson'’s rainbow - and the gay community’s.
Racists have a lot of power over me. They make me want to be a bad American. They make my blood go foamy. I want to pull down that billboard. I want to censor their message. I want to dispossess them of their right to free speech. I fantasize about flinging balloons filled with paint at the billboard. But when I pass it now, my best self thinks, Let the wrong-headed hate mongers try and recruit. I hope their group stays small. But the bad me, the un-American me thinks, Where can I get a slingshot?
Twice in the last 12 years, racist fliers have made their way onto the lawns of everyone in our neighborhood. The first time, there was a sheet of paper on my grass, rolled into a tube and fastened with a rubber band. I opened it and found a mass-produced page with a racist diatribe. I went from house to house on my street, in a spontaneous rage, snatching the fliers off everyone’s yard.
After several houses, I was fuming along, carrying a big wad of the fliers and I realized that, as people were driving by, they might think I was distributing rather than collecting the fliers, so I stopped. It was a good deal later in the day when free speech finally occurred to me.
I understand that suppression of ideas is wrong. I know that the First Amendment protects the proponents of unpopular points of view because the people pushing the popular ones don’t need protecting. I know the United States is strong enough to withstand challenges to her founding principles whether they come from a little group of racists or the White House. I know that if you suppress a hateful idea you might inadvertently create sympathy for it. The best way to kill a bad idea is to give it the light of day. Let it flounder and die because no one agrees with it. I know this in my head.
The second time, years later, I found a flier so much like the first one that I consoled myself with the thought that it must be the same single perpetrator as before. That time, realizing self-appointed censors are a problem, not a solution, I left my neighbors’ fliers for them to discover, even the families whose very DNA or sexual preference makes them targets. I felt the apoplexy again but I settled for savoring the music my paper shredder made as it obliterated the missive of hate.
Who dares to say who belongs among us? Whose list shall we use? Mine says everyone should be welcome, including, grudgingly, them. Theirs says I can stay because I look like them but certain others must go. Their Web site says there’s no place for Barry Manilow in pop music and I want to agree. Not because he’s Jewish (their reason), but because I think his songs are icky.
They say there’s no place in a museum for Marc Chagall. I can’t imagine the world without him.
In fact, I can’t imagine a world that never held Sherman Alexie, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Charles, Maya Lin, Diego Rivera, Mahatma Gandhi, and Roz Chast, but that’s exactly the kind of world the billboard people are working for.
You’ll be glad to know they don’t let just anyone into their group. I mean besides the people - you know who you are - who aren’t welcome. No, even among the white, straight people of European descent who have no “non-White spouses or dependents,” only applicants who are “people of good character” are admitted.
Only racists who are people of good character. That’s a small group indeed.
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to the Opinion section. She lives in Salt Lake City.