This past week has found most of us transfixed on the tragic, brutal, wanton death of George Floyd and the descent into national chaos that rapidly followed. Just when we thought we were on our way to normalcy, scenes of burning police cars and cities in flames have brought us abruptly back to life in a world that seems unhinged and unreal. The news again resembles “Outbreak”, “I am Legend,” and “Mississippi Burning” merged into one how to honor George Floyd movie. Except that this is real, and we are not guaranteed a happy ending.
We are safe here in Wallowa County, we think. This injustice, this public spectacle of murder and subsequent violence cannot, will not, reach this far or cut deeply into our nearly homogeneous white community.
But every time we think that, it would serve us well to remember that Wallowa County is hardly a paragon of racial virtue. There was, of course, the extirpation of Chief Joseph’s band, driven from their homeland by a fraught combination of greed, privilege, and racism. Fast forward a decade and there’s the 1887 murder of at least 34 Chinese miners at Deep Creek in Hells Canyon, now officially named “Chinese Massacre Cove” by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. Perhaps this was motivated by a lust for gold. But can anyone argue in good conscience that if the miners in Deep Creek were white, the outcome would have been the same?
That was a long time ago in years, but the echoes still haunt us all.
Witness the slurs spoken and the swastika emblazoned on a vehicle in the Enterprise High School parking lot early in this school year. Was this simply bullying? Or the innocent innuendo of someone who thought this was fun?
Possibly. But there are too many instances over the past decade where people of color or diverse backgrounds have felt the barb of prejudice and stab of fear right here in paradise.
As we hunker down in Wallowa County, waiting to see whether the attenuated, muzzled summer tourist season miraculously brings virus-free economic relief, we would do well to take stock of our own individual mindset—both conscious and subconscious.
There are, after all, only a surly, misbegotten few who wear prejudice on their sleeves, right?
And yet, if we take the time to be fully introspective, it’s likely that almost all of us will find some conscious or subconscious tribalism, some dormant xenophobia that leads to prejudice. In an article titled “The Roots of Racism,” published in Science Magazine several years ago, Elizabeth Coulatta noted “Prejudice apparently stems from deep evolutionary roots and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side.”
This, of course, is not an apologia for racism or actions stemming from it. “These prejudices tap into very ancient parts of our minds, and it’s happening at a very quick, automatic level,” said psychologist Mark Schaller of the University of British Columbia, writing in the same article. “But we have recently evolved parts of our brains that allow us to engage in slower, more rational thought.”
Wallowa County is an uncommonly generous and unified community when it comes to supporting one another and worthy community causes. Devin Patton’s opinion piece in these pages, On Courage, speaks to the need for us to continue to talk, to be forthright, and to display courtesy with one-another. To engage in the slower, more rational thought that Schaller invokes.
George Floyd’s death would be well-served if each of us took a little time to examine our heart and mind for those deeply embedded instincts that can lead to fear and misunderstanding in ourselves and others.
And while we are at it, we can also make sure that we stand up for justice. Always. And in doing so, we can truly honor Mr. Floyd’s memory.