Kansans must take stronger action against acts of discrimination

An ad for First District Congressional candidate Tracey Mann claimed his primary opponent voted to bring Somalis from a 'terrorist country' to Garden City. (Screenshot)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. David Norlin is a retired Cloud County Community College teacher, where he was department chairman of Communications/English, specializing in media. 

I am blessed with many Kansas friends. They are mostly open-minded, thoughtful, considerate people. My Kansas hometowns — McCracken, Lawrence, Topeka, Garden City, Concordia and Salina — have all been comfortable, stimulating, welcoming places to live. What could go wrong?

Well, this. We recently have found ourselves confronted with a dawning awareness that even us “normal” people may be unwittingly complicit in a long-standing, straight-jacketed social structure that keeps people in their place, whatever that place might be.

Case in point: Just four years ago, three white southwest Kansas men, calling themselves “The Crusaders,” were arrested by the FBI and charged with domestic terrorism. Why? They planned to blow up four vehicles filled with explosives at the four corners of a Somali apartment complex in Garden City, creating untold terror, havoc and bloodshed among Somalian meat-packing plant worker refugees. They got 25-30 years in prison.

Four years later, in this election cycle, an ad for First District Congressional candidate Tracey Mann claimed his primary opponent voted to bring Somalis (from a “terrorist country”) to Garden City. In so doing, he made terrorists out of potential victims of terrorism. He got two years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thus did skin color and religion make Somalis an easy target, using upside-down logic for political gain. This in America, who welcomes its poor, tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And for a better Kansas economy, to boot.

Ijeoma Oluo, in her book, “So You Want to Talk about Race,” writes that Americans are frightened at the revelation that “America is not and never has been the melting-pot utopia” we’ve all been taught. But there’s still an underlying faith, especially among our youth, that America is still a place for people yearning to breathe free.

This was illustrated on Oct. 22, when a Junction City High School student was told by a JCHS employee to remove her Islamic head scarf (hijab). Students promptly demonstrated outside the school to protest religious discrimination. She kept her hijab, but the principal, who “instructed” her to write about its “cultural significance,” was suspended for the year by the board.

Hopeful though this is, it will take deep thought and deeper action for us all to act on our dawning awareness that simply condemning acts of discrimination is not enough.

Isabel Wilkerson provides a keen analysis of the problem in her book “Caste.” She studies a worldwide system that creates “untouchables” in India, the United States and other countries that have discovered cheap labor can be dominated and extracted for the benefit of the upper castes, who are by definition white or lighter-skinned.

To use Wilkerson’s analogy, “America is an old house.” That “slight welt” in the spare bedroom corner plaster, chalked up to idiosyncrasy, over time “becomes a wave that widens and bulges despite the new roof.” The owner of an old house knows “whatever is lurking will fester, whether you choose to look or not.”

Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away “gnaws at you” until you gather courage “to face what you would rather not see.” If you are living in it, you either fix what is needed or see the whole structure disintegrate around you, leaving you at the mercy of the elements.

Representative-elect Mann’s ad was designed to trigger emotional reaction, not discussion. Many likely flashed on the movie “Blackhawk Down,” depicting U.S. troops pinned down helplessly in Mogadishu, nearly 30 years ago in Somalia. Those reacting likely gathered little information about the 2016 Garden City refugees, nor saw another film, “Strangers in Town,” about Somalis and other Garden Citians’ 2019 gatherings and dinner parties that cemented friendships.

Mann’s ad not only plastered over the problem, it created a flimsy foundation for his leadership and our country as a whole. Foundation-destroying dynamite was already planted when Mann pledged fealty to President Donald Trump’s Sept. 22 Executive Order to cut funding for any diversity program that mentions white privilege or “critical race theory,” thus chilling efforts to bring us together.

If we are to live in this old house, we need to fix it. The first order of business would be to wake up, think more independently and reach out across ideological chasms. We need to hire, and be, competent carpenters who measure twice, cut once — and don’t encourage existing termites.

Kansans, we are better than this. We must demand awareness, both of ourselves and our representatives, as we repair and improve this House — and Senate — that should shelter us all.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.