Some years back we toured the Statehouse at Mississippi and got a courteous tour of the place from one of its legislators. He asked where we were from and, told Idaho, replied that he knew little about the state other than references to its famous potatoes and famous neo-Nazis.
A week ago, Charlottesville, Virginia took the spotlight on the neo-Nazi front, but Idaho is not out of the racial extremist picture. The 24/7 WallSt. website compiled data on hate groups from the Southern Poverty Law Center - which for decades has been tracking such organizations - and found Idaho has the second largest number of such groups in the nation, per resident. (Montana was first, but it has a smaller population; Mississippi was in third place.)
Back when the Mississippi legislator offered his perspective, I felt obliged to clarify something. The neo-Nazis he (and so many other Americans) had heard of did exist, and then still had their compound in Kootenai County. But never were there more than a few hundred there, and usually no more than a few dozen. They were never popular in the state. On the few occasions when someone associated with them ran for public office, they always lost by overwhelming margins.
It would be more comforting to stop there and suggest that there may be a few bad eggs in every basket, but it’s only a very, very few.
Still. Reputations can feed on themselves; prophecies can self-fulfill.
Idaho, especially (not exclusively) northern Idaho, became known as a place where white supremacists or separatists or nationalists might feel comfortable.
That isn’t entirely about attitudes. Idaho is relatively remote from big population centers. As a matter of demographics, it is more homogenous than most of the country: Low percentages of minorities, ethnic, religious and otherwise.
It evolved in a certain cultural mythology as part of a region where people uncomfortable with multi-cultural environments could go to withdraw from the rest of the country.
According to 24/7 WallSt., we get to this: “There are 7.1 hate groups for every 1 million people in Idaho, nearly the greatest concentration of any state considered. One of the least diverse states in the country, some 91.5% of the state’s population identifies as white, nearly the largest share of any U.S. state. Despite the state’s relative racial homogeneity, or perhaps because of it, one of the dozen hate groups operating in Idaho is a KKK chapter based in Hayden.”
Listen to state Representative Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, in a statement (from radio host Dave Hodges) she reposted about Charlottesville: “The way the media has set this up, the mention of white nationalist, which is no more than a Caucasian who (sic) for the Constitution and making America great again, and confusing it with term, ‘white supremacist’ which is extreme racism. Therefore, if one is ‘guilty’ of being white, one is clearly racist. And if one is white AND loves America, they are a white supremacist capable of carrying out violent acts against nonwhites.”
The terminology may be slippery, but the attitudes, and stances, are not. The message gets out. Idaho’s top elected leaders, including many of those in current posts, have for many years denounced racism in the state. Idaho has its Anne Frank memorial and plenty of leaders who fight racism in the state.
But the lower-level, sometimes underground, message often is more welcoming - to white race-based groups, and often not so much to everyone else.