Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The education of a racist

Posted By on Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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Scott Shepherd tells me the story of how he became a racist - and then how he stopped being one.

At one time, he was a serious, determined and dangerous racist. He was a high-ranking official in the Ku Klux Klan and he ran for public office in Tennessee twice as a white supremacist. He didn't win in his campaigns for governor and state representative, but he acknowledges that he did a lot of damage along the way.

Shepherd and I are talking on the radio, along with race relations expert and author Daryl Davis. Davis, a black man, has made a practice of establishing relationships with white supremacists and attempting to lead them away from the path of racial animosity. He's had success. He's persuaded more than a few dragons and wizards to renounce their racist ways.

Davis and Shepherd both have interesting stories to tell, but I find myself pitching more of the questions Shepherd's way.

Maybe it's because, in these angry, angry times, I want to try to understand what makes someone adopt hate as a lifestyle, a passion, a mission.

When Shepherd tells his story, that story's pedestrian nature makes it clear how well-trod the path to bigotry is.

He was born in Mississippi in 1959. His hometown - Indianola - was the birthplace of the White Citizens Council, a racist organization dedicated to preserving and promoting segregation.

Integration came to Indianola when Shepherd was in elementary school, but the fuse for his rage already had been lit long before the classrooms were desegregated. He came from a troubled family - one that struggled with alcohol and dysfunction.

When Indianola's schools were integrated, the white families in the community who had money sent their children to an all-white private school. Shepherd's family didn't have money. He went to a public school that was overwhelmingly black.

Every school day was a reminder not just of the changes in the South's racial politics, but also of just how far down on the social totem pole Shepherd and his family sat. Each day was yet another reason to feel resentment about his life and everything around him.

He drifted to the KKK because the organization meshed with his stored grievances, the well-stoked fires of anger he carried within him. Being part of the Klan made him feel "welcome," as if he "belonged somewhere," he says.

He rose in the ranks and worked hard at baiting, belittling and tormenting blacks, Jews, immigrants and just about anyone who wasn't just like him and his friends.

When Shepherd was running for governor of Tennessee as an avowed racist, he got pulled over while driving under the influence.

He had to go into treatment as a way of avoiding harsher legal penalties. The treatment forced him not just to confront his drinking and substance problems, but other issues, too.

"I learned that the problem wasn't all the other people I blamed," he says. "The problem was Scott Shepherd."

He renounced his racist views and began working to achieve racial reconciliation. When he encounters people he tormented in his earlier days, he tries to make amends.

"I know I'll never make right what I did, but it's important to try," he says. I ask Davis, who has spent a quarter-century studying white supremacist groups, how common stories like Shepherd's are - stories that lead to bigotry and hate.

"All too common," Davis almost sighs.

People veer to racist organizations, he explains, when they are unhappy with their lives and change seems to overwhelm them. They look for people to blame for their misery - people they don't think are like them.

Both Davis and Shepherd say the key is simple but hard: Getting racists to stop looking at types and get them started seeing people, individual human beings. It's intensive work and it has to be done on a person-to-person level.

Doing the work that way takes a lot of time, but there's a good reason to step up the pace.

Membership among the KKK and other hate groups is growing rapidly. Davis and Shepherd explain at least one of the reasons: There's a black man in the White House, which has made a lot of already unhappy and angry people even more unhappy and angry.

That makes for a fertile field of racists from which to grow a good crop of racists.

John Krull is director Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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