On the Oct. 12 episode of Arkansas Educational Television Network’s “Arkansas Week,” Jeff Hankins and I had a little spat.
Jeff is outgoing publisher of Arkansas Business. He gave me my first full-time job in newspapering. I remember the day he told me that Arkansas Business had offered him a job. I have nothing but respect for Jeff’s work and for the person he is, a decent and honest man and a devoted husband and father.
That said, he couldn’t have been more wrong when we were discussing the role of race in Arkansas in the context of elections.
I contended that several legislative candidates know exactly what they are doing when they invoke racial undertones — or overtly racist positions — in their campaigns. Further, these men know exactly who they are preaching to. They are winning votes. Why? Because they are largely preaching to the choir.
I don’t say this as a carpetbagger, some Johnny-come-lately to the Arkansas scene. No, I’m a born-and-raised native. I’ve seen segregation and deference and racial anger. I don’t need a study to tell me about it. I saw it. Lived it. See and live it now.
Jeff’s view was that racial issues aren’t nearly as pervasive as I contended. That’s an ivory tower perspective.
My hometown’s population of about 750 includes no more than a handful of men, women and children of color. That ratio is part of the reason many of the people there can’t put the racial puzzle together; they miss too many pieces.
An anecdotal perspective: From Little League on, the best baseball player in our town was a boy/teenager/young man who not many of us knew much about. I probably knew more about him than anyone else, because I would give him a ride home after practice or games. He was a “black” guy.
He lived in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town. That was different, because most of the “black” people lived in one neighborhood over by the industrial part of town, if a town of 750 can have an industrial section. I remember driving into his driveway and then watching him walk into that house that had nothing but darkness in the windows.
I felt sorry for him.
Looking back, I’m ashamed that I saw only the veneer of his life and let my thoughts equate socioeconomic status with what I can only refer to as happiness. Who was I, though, to know how that family made their way?
Years later, my friend — the guy I played catch with for years, the guy I felt sorry for, the guy I saw grow into an angry young man — would lose control of his faculties. I don’t know the full story. I don’t know what caused the change in him, but it was obvious. He turned from a quiet, almost introverted guy into a bully, seemingly wanting to fight anyone in his way.
The last I heard, he was in an institution. No, I haven’t been to see him.
Had he felt the sting of a racial label? Had he bumped up against the ceiling that was there — and still is — for many Arkansans with dark skin? Maybe.
In all parts of this state, “white” people speak out of both sides of their mouth. They are friendly to “black” people to their face, but use unfriendly words in homogeneous company. That’s the way they grew up. That’s the way they are today.
They may always harbor those sentiments. It’s too late for them to change lifelong perceptions.
My generation largely isn’t like that.
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Rick Fahr is an independent journalist in Arkansas who most recently was editor and publisher of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.