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DULUTH - A close-up of a white woman's face confronts motorists from billboards plastered along major roads here with the message, in large, black letters: "It's hard to see racism when you're white."
The billboards are part of the Un-Fair Campaign, which also includes dozens of posters that have appeared in office windows, including one poster depicting a young woman with this message written in black marker across her forehead: "Is white skin really fair skin?"
One of the stated goals of the campaign is to create a community dialogue. In that regard, it got more than it bargained for.
Hundreds of the city's white residents have complained that the campaign's kick-off images and messages are offensive. The campaign, they say, blames all racism on whites and implies that white people aren't smart enough to recognize racism.
Meanwhile, the campaign's defenders and sponsors, including Mayor Don Ness, say they've received dozens of hateful messages and e-mails from all over the world, as news of the campaign hit websites that cater to white supremacists and other racists. One message to Ness: "Die, scum, die."
"I became kind of a lightning rod for groups outside our community," said Ness, who was accused in messages from as far away as Scotland of inviting "white genocide" and being a "traitor" to his race.
"It was disappointing to see the level of hate and ugliness," he said.
Ness said he's also heard "heartfelt objections" to the campaign from many "thoughtful, well-meaning" Duluthians.
One of those citizens, Phil Pierson, created a Facebook page called "Stop Racist Unfair Campaign" to air objections to it. More than 425 people became members.
Pierson frequently posts messages admonishing members to keep the discussion civil, and he deplores the white supremacist rhetoric showing up in some messages to community leaders.
Still, said Pierson, the campaign erred by opening with such jarring messages and images.
"You can't open a discussion on race and hope to see it move in a positive direction when you raise the topic by stereotyping an entire race," Pierson said. "It spreads animosity and hate, teaches a new generation to point fingers and [focuses] on the color of our skin instead of the idea that we're all human."
The 'invisible' problem
The Un-Fair Campaign, which launched with the billboards last month and so far has spent $4,600, didn't set out to shock or offend people, although organizers are glad they got the community's attention, said Ellen O'Neill, executive director of the YWCA of Duluth, one of the campaign's 15 sponsors.
She said the sponsors, which also include several colleges, worked with a PR firm to come up with the messages, which they hope will help white people try to imagine what it's like to be non-white in a place like Duluth, which is 90 percent white.
"It's possible to never interact with a person of color here," O'Neill said. "It makes the problem more invisible."
O'Neill said the campaign is directed at people 18 to 30 years old because market research indicated that people of that age group were more likely to lead behavior-changing movements, such as anti-smoking or recycling campaigns.
She said the stakes are high because only 25 percent of Duluth's black students and 34 percent of American Indian students graduate from high school in four years, compared with 80 percent of white students. Similarly, she said, census data indicate that only 18 percent of the city's whites live in poverty, compared to 67 percent of blacks and 56 percent of American Indians.
"How is our community going to prosper and grow if such disparities exist?" she wrote in a recent op-ed article in the Duluth News-Tribune. "How can we accept such inequality?"
Now that the campaign has the community's attention, its focus will move to hosting community meetings with such provocative titles as "Cracking the Shell of Whiteness." The meetings are designed to promote discussions between people of different races and education about how institutions such as schools and companies might build in privileges that benefit people from the dominant culture and hurt people outside it.
A Wednesday panel discussion at the College of St. Scholastica drew more than 400 people, most of them college students. School spokesman Bob Ashenmacher said the audience listened to an all-white panel discuss ways in which they became aware of so-called white privilege.
Ness said Duluth already showed it can have uncomfortable discussions about race relations. Several years ago, despite decades of silence and initial resistance from some city leaders, Duluthians placed a memorial on the downtown street corner where a white mob lynched three black circus workers in 1920, what many have called the darkest moment in the city's history.
Change of perspective
Chuck Horton, a boxing promoter who runs a gym in Duluth, said the Un-Fair campaign has changed his point of view, even though he wasn't exactly looking for it.
Horton said he was initially put off by the billboards and posters.
Some saw an insult
"I didn't like the way they were worded," he said. "They implied white people can't see racism, so we must be stupid. That was insulting to me."
But then Horton took a ride through rural Duluth with one of his fighters, Al Sands, who is black. The billboards came up, and the two argued about whether whites really see racism toward non-whites.
Just then, Horton said, their car passed a police officer in a squad car, off the road observing traffic, and both Horton and Sands saw the officer do a double-take.
"The cop even pulled up out of the ditch to get a better look at us," Horton said. "Al said that kind of thing happened to him all the time."
"I don't believe in coincidence," Horton said. "It's so ironic that we had that experience exactly when we did. I believe it was a message to me to see things through other people's eyes."
Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504