In ancient times, Idaho politics were a model of bipartisan, western-style independence. Republicans and Democrats shared the state, not always in agreement, of course, but rather both modeling effective governance. Remember, Idaho once had a respected, progressive governor in Cecil Andrus, and a respected, independent U.S. senator in Frank Church.
Despite that ancient history, Idaho in the 1980s and 1990s and into the early years of this century became an “end-of-the-road” destination, the northern, western state where all roads metaphorically end, collecting the wackaloons and nutcases — and worse — who were fleeing other parts of the country in search of religious fundamentalism and their version of racial purity. That is how North Idaho became home to neo-Nazis and Christian white supremacists, earning the region a reputation for hate that soiled the entire state’s reputation.
Not too many years ago, North Idaho progressives celebrated what seemed to be an end to the white supremacist expansion. Neo-Nazi Richard Butler lost his compound and other organized hate groups left the state. But the celebrations were premature. The compounds were gone but the hate mongers remained, not even underground, now joined by wild-eyed religious fanatics, Q-Anon conspiracy nutcases and Trump-style nativists.
And like a cancer, those dangerous ideologies have spread all the way to the state capitol in Boise. Idaho is not just a red state, it is a fringe red state.
The current legislative session has demonstrated what that looks like in law and policy and in the twisted values on display in legislative chambers.
— Legislators forced a victim to testify in public (albeit behind a screen) about her rape at the hands of a Lewiston legislator. One Republican lawmaker actually shared the victim’s name on social media.
— When Rep. Chris Mathias, a Boise Democrat and the only Black male legislator, rose to address issues of race and systemic racism, he was heckled and eventually silenced by colleagues who did not want to hear a Black man talk about race.
— The Legislature approved a fetal heartbeat bill that, if allowed to stand by the courts, would end legal abortion in the state.
— Lawmakers changed the rules making it almost impossible for citizens to place initiatives on the ballot.
— Legislators and the governor compromised on legislation that would restrict the governor’s ability to deal with a public emergency — read pandemic — targeting mask mandates and crowd-size rules.
— Finally, the Legislature approved state education budgets — with substantial cuts — after essentially outlawing instruction at any level dealing with critical race theory, systemic racism, or issues of social justice.
Christina Lords, former editor of The Idaho Statesman now writing for the digital Idaho Capital Sun, last week posted one of the most articulate and damning descriptions of the state’s moral collapse. You can find it here: bit.ly/3bk0Lzi
It is time to end any argument that radical evangelism, racism, and nativism is not what Idaho is about, she argued. In that, she is correct. The Legislature’s actions are exactly what the state is about, and it will only get worse.
There is so much to unpack here, too much for this space. But of all the above actions, the Legislature’s ban on the teaching of critical race theory, systemic racism and issues of social justice hits closest to home.
As a professor in the University of Idaho’s School of Journalism and Mass Media, my department was committed, per university policy and in accordance with our accreditation standards, to making sure we included media professionals of color in our lectures, that we dealt with issues of racism in the media and chronicled the changes that have led to a somewhat more inclusive media landscape.
Ida B. Wells may be the most notable American journalist who remains unknown to most. She was active in the late 19th century and early 20th, owned the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and was dubbed “the Princess of the Press” by The Journalist, a trade publication. She was among the founders of the NAACP.
But Wells is most famous for her unrelenting campaign to bring public attention to Black lynchings in the South, working tirelessly to bring an end to racial violence and Jim Crow.
How could I talk about Ida Wells in my media and society class without violating the Legislature’s prohibitions? The history of lynchings is all about systemic racism and is fundamental to critical race theory however that is defined.
Robert Sengstacke Abbott was the founder of The Chicago Defender and was, in his day, the most powerful Black publisher. He campaigned throughout his life for two causes. First, he advocated Black migration out of the South to the industrial North as an escape from Jim Crow. Second, he was a tireless advocate for integration of the U.S. armed forces.
How could I include Abbott in any lecture without discussing systemic racism?
In Fall 2019, I taught the journalism school’s course on mass media and cultural diversity. As I read the legislation, that entire course would be improper. But how can future media pros function in a multicultural society without understanding the media’s impact on race and racism? Much of what the Idaho Legislature has accomplished this session will have the effect of further separating the state from the American mainstream. And that produces outcomes Idahoans will come to regret.
Future economic growth depends on two factors. First, the willingness of large employers, corporate employers, to locate in the state. Second, the ability of those large employers to attract a qualified workforce.
Increasingly, we are seeing corporate America publicly stand against racism, white supremacy, and nativism. Those corporate values will not be at home in Idaho.
Worse, Idaho students who are taught — more precisely, not taught — about race in America, who are fed an alternative history that fails to recognize the nation’s failures as well as its triumphs, will not be prepared to work in a society that is becoming, increasingly, irrevocably multi-cultural. Employers will see that. The state’s college graduates, whose professors have been muzzled, will see it, too. Increasingly they will continue to leave the state.
For the state’s colleges and universities, always striving to join the nation’s best public schools, a curriculum handcuffed by lawmakers will have the opposite effect.
This is a race to the bottom with Idaho headed to third-world status, except that statement insults third-world countries working hard to improve their lot. Sadly, Idaho is moving in the opposite direction.
Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho and was a professional journalist for 40 years. He retired from full-time teaching in May. This column originally appeared in spokanefavs.com/.