Sometimes in our nice white rural Midwest, racial resentment comes wrapped in a kind of folksy and passive-aggressive humor.
I learned this as a college head football coach at a small university from 1985 to 1992 and as I began to recruit young men from all over the country to be part of our team. Shortly after I arrived in town, a prominent member of the community asked me about all the "cans" I was bringing to the community. I was confounded. Then he enlightened me: "You know, cans — like MexiCANS, AfriCAN AmeriCANS, Puerto RiCANS."
I told him that my players were good kids, and in the future, they would be great student-athletes. I encouraged him to get to know them. But as time went on and even as our team started having more success, I began to encounter more open bigotry and discrimination.
One alum told me that he really liked my Black players, but because of something that happened in the Army, he actually hated the Black race. I restated what he just told me: "Because of something that happened to you in the Army years ago you hate the whole Black race?" He nodded his head yes.
It got worse.
A small neighboring community had an annual outdoor celebration and some of our team went to join in the fun. At the event, a drunk off-duty police officer attacked a young Black player. The fight was breaking up and the police were called. With a wink from the drunk officer, the young Black man was arrested and placed in the police car. Others who went to the event were deathly afraid they would never see this young man again. When the arresting officer went to retrieve something, they let the young man out of the car and ran for their lives. I was notified by local authorities that there was an APB out for the young man who was attacked. He was wanted for misdemeanor fighting and felony escape charges. He ended up being arrested, was placed in jail and had to plead guilty to a reduced sentence, paid a fine, was put on probation and now had a criminal record. All because he was a Black man who was targeted by a drunk off-duty police officer and ran to save his life.
One more story comes to mind. A female student who drove from her small town to the college each day was smitten with a star running back who was Black. After a weekend fling, word started getting around her town that she had been with a Black man. Embarrassed, she went to a local counselor and stated she'd been raped. That set in motion processes whereby the player was arrested, charged, jailed and eventually brought to trial. The courts eventually found the player not guilty of all charges.
Despite these injustices in neighboring communities, we were blessed in our own small college town of Huron, S.D., to have a better set of leaders. Our sheriff was a gentle giant of a man who genuinely cared for others regardless of race or color. Our chief of police taught classes at the college, got to know many of the players on campus and became a friend to many. Our local judge, although tough as nails, treated everyone the same.
The difference in our town compared with other places was that law enforcement officials took time to get to know the young Black, Hispanic, Native American and even wonderful Palestinian players who came to our community from across the country (and white recruits, too). Our town soon realized the newcomers were good people and not much different from themselves and other local young people.
Eventually the sheriff started hiring players to help run security at concerts and other events. They became good friends. The chief of police started to get minority students interested in pursuing degrees in criminal justice.
The tough judge contacted my wife and me when he became aware of the two players mentioned above being potentially wrongfully accused of crimes they didn't commit. In order to lessen the scars of being arrested and jailed, he asked if they could be put in house arrest at our home. These two young men at different times became part of our family, and they couldn't have been better big brothers to our daughters. In our town if a Black man was running with a hoodie on, law enforcement would recognize that it was simply Willie jogging home from track practice. These young men were valued for the good they did. It was appreciated when they helped as security at big events or for their willingness to visit and counsel young people at risk in the detention center.
Because of the efforts of these young men and criminal-justice instructors like our chief of police, we have graduates that are now local law enforcement officers, state penitentiary guards and U.S. marshals. Other players are teachers/coaches, counselors, businesspeople, preachers, salespeople and a world-class blues guitar player. Our Puerto RiCAN now works for the U.S. Geological Survey back home in San Juan.
And just as important, these men turned out to be fine husbands, fathers, mentors and community volunteers. My wife, Karen, and I couldn't have been more blessed to have them be part of our lives.
So what's my point and where do we go from here? Two things.
First thing, many more of us rural white people need to accept that we do enjoy privilege, compared with people of color if not to other more wealthy white people. This doesn't mean our lives haven't been hard. I myself grew up in a family of eight, often raised by a single mother and at times in houses without running water. But life has also taught me since then that my whiteness gave me the benefit of the doubt and a presumption of innocence in white rural America, while young men of color all too often are presumed guilty or viewed with extreme prejudice here.
Second thing, get personally involved in welcoming of newcomers and in anti-racist initiatives. Religious and civic organizations devoted to this are growing throughout rural regions. Finding them is as simple as googling for "how can I help with racial justice in (my county or region)". Here in southwestern Minnesota, a good resource is the Southwest Initiative Foundation, which is coordinating community efforts such as "Grow Our Own," a 10-year project to equalize opportunities for all young people in the region.
To play on the words of both the fearful citizen I described earlier, and a former AfriCAN AmeriCAN president of the United States, yes, we CAN do it, and we'll all be better for it.
Cary Radisewitz lives in Luverne, Minn. He was head football coach at Huron University in South Dakota and later served 13 years on the board of the Luverne Public School District. A longer version of this article was published in the Rock County Star Herald in October 2020.