David Adler: Racism is a problem in Idaho, and the state needs to fight it

June 20, 2013 

Somewhere within the city limits of Burley, there stands a house encircled by a chain link fence which sports a sign that declares, "No Mexicans."

That sign, and the sentiment it reflects, is not uncommon in certain precincts in Idaho. It is darkly reminiscent of the "Whites Only" signs and posters which, for decades, championed the sprawling racism that characterized the deep South.

As a matter of freedom of speech, homeowners enjoy broad latitude in the expression of their views on their property. The irony of the location of that home is that it is located within a largely Hispanic neighborhood through which children pass on their way to school.

Such is the self-assuredness, and arrogance of racism, that it recognizes few limits. It is blind to knowledge, facts, science and the prescriptions of humanity. Everything about racism, indeed prejudice and discrimination in general, is repugnant, to be sure. Its puzzling and troublesome persistence is a poltergeist that haunts our state.

"Do you really believe that discrimination can be ended?" asked a reader of one of my recent columns that criticized those in positions of authority who have failed to tackle the practice of discrimination against large segments of our population. I would not hold my breath waiting for the abolition of discrimination in all of its manifestations, but the likelihood of falling short of perfection is no argument against efforts to rein it in and to challenge it at every turn.

If perfection were the measuring stick by which we enact laws, our country long ago would have abandoned the idea that we could curb behavior through legislation. The occasional rants that deny our ability to "legislate morality" or legislate values or norms of behavior are, of course, groundless.

Aristotle was among the first to recognize that law, as an institution, is society's most effective educator. Citizens who would violate laws would face stiff civil and criminal penalties. Only the most defiant, stubborn souls would prefer frequent punishment to adherence to laws and customs. Most citizens would choose compromise and compliance with laws and societal norms.

Racism, whether practiced in Burley or Selma, is as old as humanity and provides one of the principal rationales for the Doctrine of Human Rights. The problems associated with it - psychological, sociological, economic and otherwise - can be addressed through civic education, religious programs, neighborhood meetings and, yes, governmental programs and legislation.

However difficult it is to rid our society of the scourge of discrimination, we must try. There is a role, indeed a large and important role to be played by our elected officials. Congress and state legislatures across the nation have enacted laws that have confronted most, but not all, forms of discrimination. Governmental representatives can, and should, do more.

In recent years, Gov. Butch Otter and legislative leaders have championed a variety of projects, ranging from tax cuts to education reform to programs about the very real dangers of methamphetamine. Meth destroys lives; so too does the practice of racism. If the state can develop and fund programs to combat the evils of meth, it can develop and fund programs to combat racism.

Here's a modest proposal for our elected leaders. Let's ask Gov. Otter to report on the status of discrimination in Idaho in his next State of the State Address. Let's ask the governor and legislative leaders to denounce in their forthcoming patriotic Fourth of July speeches the practice of racism and discrimination as an affront to the principle of equality.

Let's hear from them in word and deed, about the great dangers that race discrimination poses to our constitutional system, our Republican values and the future of Idaho's reputation and legacy. Let's hear from them that no Idahoan should be subjected to the evils of racism and treated as a second-class citizen. Which elected officials will disagree?

Adler is the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he holds appointment as the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs. He has lectured on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Presidency.

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