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Sunday, October 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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LYNNE VARNER

My own,personal IDAHO; I am infected with the same fear of white people that many whites have of black people

Times editorial writer

Two Views of a state with an identity problem

The Idaho Panhandle is a land of contradictions. It is a place made infamous by people who hate. It is a place loved by those who find peace in the beauty of its mountains, streams and valleys. It is home to Rev. Richard Butler, founder of the the now-defunct racist organization, Aryan Nations. It is also home to human-rights organizations and individuals who are are fighting a grass-roots battle to reclaim the region's identity, to put the lie to North Idaho as a metaphor for racism, to make real the campaign that begins this weekend, "Idaho, the Human Rights State." These two essays reveal both sides of the North Idaho contradiction. ---------------------------

Idaho is no more a haven for racists than any other state. But that doesn't stop many African-American travelers from giving this natural wonderland a wide berth.

A friend of mine vacations in Montana but refuses to step foot in Idaho. When she does pass through, it is at high, nonstop speed.

Another friend tells me how his parents discouraged him from going to Idaho by telling him that black travelers have been known to mysteriously disappear while visiting the state.

I couldn't find any news accounts of missing black travelers. Still, blacks as a whole avoid Idaho so much that it made news when 2,600 members of the all-black National Brotherhood of Skiers went to Sun Valley a few years back. Even with that coup, Idaho hasn't been too successful in attracting African-American tourists.

Why pick on Idaho? All in all, there are 52 hate groups in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, according to the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity. Seven are in Idaho. Seventeen are in my own back yard, Washington state.

But only Idaho conjures up twin images of pristine beauty and racial hatred.

Idaho is 90 percent white. It is part of the Inland Northwest--Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and western Montana--which has a long history of white supremacy activity.

People who couldn't name Idaho's two U.S. senators can quickly recite the following facts:

# # The northern part of the state, Hayden Lake, is home to the white supremacist group, Aryan Nations.

# # In central Idaho, above the breathtaking Clearwater River, there is Almost Heaven. This bucolic community was started by patriot leader, Bo Gritz, as a refuge from urban ills. (Does anyone else besides me suspect that "urban ills" is code for minorities?)

# # And it was to Sandpoint, Idaho, that (former Los Angeles police detective) Mark Fuhrman fled to escape the infamy he gained by his role in the O.J. Simpson trial and his use of racial slurs.

To the average black person, something smells in Idaho and it's not the skunk hiding behind the ponderosa.

There are scores of Idahoans who have come out in opposition to the hatred their neighbors spew. Some have risked physical harm. But there are many more who said nothing. Their silence becomes tacit acceptance, making Idaho attractive to those who prefer to do their dirty work in rural darkness.

The Rev. Richard Butler moved to Idaho in the late 1970s to start the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and its political and militaristic arm, the Aryan Nations. Butler said he chose this place as a homeland for white supremacists because its scarcity of people of color meant little opposition to his racists goals. What confidence he had in his white neighbors.

Idaho gained a victory in shedding its racist image when a local jury last month awarded $6.3 million to mother and son passers-by who were assaulted and shot at by three Aryan Nations guards. Butler's 20-acre compound will be confiscated as a result. But I'm not naive enough to equate losing a meeting spot with erasing hateful ideology.

I sometimes dream of visiting Idaho. My mind runs fleetingly over the region's green landscape, its myriad lakes and the largest stand of western white pine trees anywhere. Then fear sets in.

If I ran out of gas or needed some other emergency assistance, how could I tell the friendly houses from the ones that shelter racists?

What would it be like to sit for a meal at the country-style restaurant where Butler likes to eat? Who would be more comfortable, him or me?

It's not just my emotional comfort I'm worried about. It's my life. The bullets that missed the mother and son may not miss me.

What are my chances of being physically harmed for simply visiting Idaho? The answer is that I don't know and I don't care to find out.

Perception creates its own reality. It is rarely what we know that causes fear, it is what we think we know.

Think of whites who won't venture into black neighborhoods. Think of wealthy people who avoid low-income areas. Time and effort is spent mapping out alternate routes. We stockpile isolated events, like a shooting or a robbery, as evidence to fuel our fear. Soon, we can no longer remember exactly why we avoid certain communities, only that we are compelled to do so.

I tried to visit Idaho once. I flew into Spokane and rented a car. I stared at the interstate exit and rationalized driving to the state next door.

"You'll just go across the border, have some dinner and head back," I told myself.

"Pick the most expensive restaurant (under the perception that wealthy people, while equally as susceptible to racism, might have the good manners to keep it to themselves.)

"It's nearly dark, no one will be able to tell your race if you stay in the car with the windows rolled up."

In the end, I stayed on the Washington side of the state line. I was not pleased with myself. I am a journalist and we are supposed to be fearless. We enter war zones, riots and prisons. And yet, I couldn't go to Idaho.

This shows that I can be infected with the same fear of white people that many whites have of blacks.

I open the newspaper and read that hate groups are expanding. And I pore over a map of the United States and draw lines through areas where I'm afraid to travel. Suddenly, the country seems a lot smaller.

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Lynne Varner is an editorial writer for The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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