It’s Monday, Jan. 15, as I write this. I had a column ready to go, one thinking about Wallowa County as a microcosm of the country in which we, despite rancor and division at a national level, are working in the right directions.
We value health care for all; find women in positions of influence and leadership in our schools, local government, medical, professional and business communities. We have organizations discovering and celebrating a history of African-Americans living and logging alongside white citizens in Maxville and Wallowa.
We’re working to heal wounds from our own beginnings, when Nez Perce Indians were forcibly removed from the Wallowas.
But today is the day set aside to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King. I began it with a look at the headlines in the on-line New York Times, and turned immediately to an article on Black Churches.
The writers had interviewed parishioners in Catholic and Protestant churches in Washington D.C., Boston, Kansas City, Atlanta and Miami, and everywhere they found people worried and confused. Less than two years removed from their pride and hope in a black American President:
“ ... They saw America slipping into an earlier, uglier version of itself. And when Mr. Trump used crude words to describe Haiti and African countries in an immigration discussion, they said, he was voicing what many Americans were thinking, even if it was something they no longer felt comfortable saying: America prefers white people.”
As the father of a brown son, and grandfather to brown children, I see the same things and carry the same concerns. More and more I see President Trump not as a leader of a movement but as a flawed but still powerful spokesman for white people — mostly white men — who for all kinds of reasons feel threatened or left behind as the country has moved to make health care, education and opportunity available to all.
President Obama was the last straw, an admission that the country we thought we lived in — one in which we all got along most of the time, but one in which white men called the shots in big boardrooms and local churches, NBA front offices, union halls and medical schools — had slipped away.
Trump found leaders who spoke to these white men — or the leaders found Donald Trump, and together they floated on a wave of white male fear to the highest office in the land. Mr. Trump’s flaws — his attitudes toward women; previous business dealings with immigrants and foreign governments — made little difference. In fact, the “locker room” talk was quietly applauded by some angry white men.
Not all of these men are out of work coal miners in West Virginia. Many have good jobs and businesses, but they also have fears.
As do many of their wives and daughters. We all fear change to some extent, and when established norms and practices — the names of our sports teams; women, brown and black bosses and doctors; the laws regarding homosexual behavior — change, those fears rise.
Here is the good part. This is where living in a small place, a place where we are neighbors who have the opportunity and often the need to see each other as individuals, puts us at an advantage in dealing with change.
The Mexican restaurant is “Leo’s restaurant,” Leo who also plays soccer on Sunday mornings. The doctor is Rene or Liz or Annika — not that “woman doctor.” The county commissioner is Susan; the director is Cheryl or Maria or ... you get the picture.
That does not mean that there is not work to do. The fears that we carry get amplified in our own homes, and blatantly carried by our children. Our fears of homosexuals, Mexicans, immigrants, Republicans or Democrats, the “government” or the environmentalists, Mormons or Catholics, grow in the minds and mouths of our children. It’s harder to be a brown child in Wallowa County than it is to be a brown adult.
And ideas grow in our own souls as we turn away from the neighbors who happen to be homosexual or brown, Catholic, outspoken woman or stay-at-home dad, and turn towards the Internet rabble-rousers who pine for a time when white men ruled the land.
We should all remember that there was a time when being a white man was not enough — you had to own property to vote; and there was a time when white men from Ireland and Greece and Italy were not white enough.
So on this Martin Luther King Day, I remember, as he so movingly did, that this country is an idea, a dream, in which “all men are created equal.” I remember too that the “men” in that founding document is an idea that has grown to include women, and is still growing.
Columnist Rich Wandschneider lives in Joseph.