Nathan Lewis Lawrence is a biracial graduate student, world traveler, and jujitsu enthusiast from Lancaster, Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree in Security studies from Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio and received a M.A. in Peace and Conflict studies at the Department of International Relations at Hacettepe University. Currently, he attends the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Check out his personal blog Taming Cynicism.
In the spring of 2014, the some of the residents of Lancaster, Ohio, the place I call home, woke up in the morning to a rude surprise. Fliers for the Ku Klux Klan were found all over town, including the yards of interracial families like mine. It was the talk of the town but Police Chief Dave Bailey made it clear that law enforcement would not look into the issuebecause they did not“believe that these fliers represent a serious solicitation by any actual organization but are more likely a prank or hoax…” Such a reply might be understandable if Lancaster and surrounding Fairfield County had no history of racism, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality, like many northern cities, Lancaster suffers from amnesia and a failure to confront its numerous issues. In fact, it’s one of the whitest cities in the United States according to the financial website NerdWallet.
Lancaster’s biggest claim to fame is her native son General Tecumseh Sherman, the North’s bulldog. Made infamous in the South for his scorch earth tactics, General Sherman’s March to the Sea brought the destruction Atlanta and Savannah. To this very day, it serves a talking point for neo-confederates seeking to legitimize the so-called Lost Cause. To remember his honor, Sherman has a statue downtown and a Middle School named after him. This makes the town’s race issues the stuff of poetic irony, but, despite its problems, I call it home. I’m half-African-American and half-Caucasian and I’ve lived most of my life here. I’ve learned over the years on how to survive as a biracial activist in an almost entirely white environment
Often, the idea of racism is a far off notion that doesn’t seem relevant to people who have never experienced it. You have to make racial issues concrete to them by using local examples. The fundamental problem with pointing to examples of police brutality from out of town to illustrate racism is that most of the inhabitants of white suburbia have no frame of references to compare it to. It is hard to stir someone to fight for racial injustice when they confuse the Andy Griffith Show with an episode of Cops. I find most discussions with my white peers on the issue instantly dissolve into the conversations about “race-baiting”. In contrast, I find it far to easier to discuss examples that occurs in places they know of and can visualize. Here are four things you probably didn’t know about how White Supremacy manifests itself in Northern states like Ohio.
- The Jim Crow North
Racism has a deep rooted history in many Northern towns, especially historically rural communities like Lancaster. Like many cities, including those in the North, Lancaster had a past full of segregation. Public facilities (like the localpool) and privately owned shops were heavily segregated. During the 1950’s and early 1960’s Mary Burnham, an associate with the YMCA, was instrumental in providing activities for black youth by permitting them to use Y facilities when it was available. The NAACP had a relatively short lived presence in Fairfield County. Sometime between 1924 and 1929, with the help of Father Mario, the Catholic Church helped bring the NAACP to Lancaster and held a panel discussion at the local Elk lodge downtown. For decades and even up to recent years, the local catholic owned thrift store, Saint Vincent de Paul consistently employed African-Americans. Despite this, a NAACP chapter wasn’t started in Fairfield County until 1965 with the help of local resident Grant Groggin. Groggin, after removing burnt crosses from the top of Mount Pleasant (the hill downtown), had his life threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, most African-Americans left for Columbus after decades of housing discrimination. For these reasons, Lancaster, Ohio, was listed as the whitest city in the United States.
- The Great Migration and White Northern Backlash
Isabel Wilkerson, the author ofThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, recently highlighted the issue of northern racial prejudice in the New York Times by asking us “When will the North face its racism?” In the Great Migration, from World War One to the 1970s, some 6 million blacks fled their homes to seek political asylum in their own country. Northern communities like Chicago greeted these newcomers by only allowing them the worse kinds of work for lower wages and regulated them into ghettos. It is no accident that the recent wave of protests surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner and others are taking place in northern states. In order to escape Jim Crow, blacks went North, but they were followed by the very organizations that forced them to leave in the first place. Adam Parsons, a central Ohio resident/activist and PhD candidate in American history at Syracuse university, tells us, during a January 22nd interview, that Wilkerson’s point about a great migration “needs to be considered alongside the history of poor white outmigration from the South. Northern racism definitely existed already, but pre-migration Northern racism, I think, mingled with poor white Southern racism to create something new.”The Klan followed blacks to many Northern states like Indiana, organizing their chapter in 1915, and to the place I call home, Ohio. The perfect storm of Northern amnesia and largely white rural-sides weave a story that claims that Northern racial tensions (if they exist at all) only seem to occur in large cities where blacks are concentrated; thereby subtly implying that the issue is the very presence of said communities. In reality, there are many Northern cities like my home of Lancaster that used to have a sizable minority of African-Americans… they just all left for the major cities to flee racial prejudice.
3. Northern Hate Groups
When discussing past racism is essential but it is by no means the whole story, the conversation must also entail more recent events. Violent racist hate groups are by no means isolated to the southern United States. Lancaster has produced domestic terrorists. Case and point is Lancaster resident Larry Wayne Harris, who was convicted in 1998 for violating Section 175, Title 18 of the United States Code, which prohibits the possession of a biological agent for use as a weapon. Harris, a member of the National Alliance and the Aryan Nation, claimed to have military grade anthrax and, according to the FBI, had made threats to release it in a New York subway station. After discovering that he mistakenly obtained vaccine grade anthrax, he was only charged with probation violations. This all occurred after his 1995 arrest when he attempted to obtain samples of bubonic plague. Because of a tip off from the laboratory he attempted to obtain them from, he never received it. He was only convicted of wire fraud (he created a false laboratory and misrepresented his credentials in going about obtaining Bubonic Plague). Judge Joseph Kinneary only placed Harris on probation for 18 months, ordered him to complete 200 hours of community service, and a fine of $50. Needless to say, this is a slap on the wrist, but what more could you expect from a highly conservative part of Ohio?
- Economics And the Face of Modern Northern Racism
Intergenerational poverty helps reinforce much of the racism in Lancaster and surrounding Fairfield County. Working class whites struggle to make ends meet and look for someone to blame. Racial minorities are always easy targets. To quote local activist and former candidate of Lancaster City Board of Education Adam Schneider, a long time Lancaster area activist who now lives in Seattle for graduate school, during a January 21st interview: “The issue of naivety is one that is sad because there is a high concentration of poverty in Fairfield Count”. In an interview on Jan. 31st, local activist Jacob Chaffin agrees: “This same set of conservative values [those that produced racism] has prevented Lancaster from helping the poorest. The decline in industry in Lancaster has led to an increase in unemployment or low-wage jobs among high school graduates. I would argue that the lack of employment opportunity and security has directly led to the increase in drug use, which is something that people in Lancaster have attempted to ignore entirely until recently.” Tough economic situations combine with a heroin epidemic and create a perfect storm that produces hatred looking for a victim.
Conclusion: How Does One Combat Northern Racism?
Sure protests and non-violent direct action can change structures, but what strategies are effective when the racist in question is a good friend from High School who, after having a few beers,begins to use racially charged language? When dealing with racial issues it majority white towns, it is important to remember that often people are not aware they are using micro-aggressions. Lancaster native and activist Jacob Chaffin, reflecting on growing up, tells us that “I wasn’t surprised when it came out that Lancaster was considered the whitest city in America. When people of color did attend Lancaster High School, it was always noticeable and talked about among the white students. For the most part, I wouldn’t say that students were overtly racist, but rather partook in colorblind or ironic racism that is prevalent in our generation.”
To help them realize that they are engaging in racism, do you go out of the way to maintain a friendship with them, slowly apply pressure, and hope that they change over time or do you lay out an ultimatum? Finding the balance between an incrementalist and a fire-and-brimstone approach is one I’m still trying to figure out. Ultimately it seems to come down to the individual I’m trying to change. When taking an incremental, be aware of the microaggressions that you will unavoidably encounter. For example, a frequent topic of discussion was the race of my parents. Acquaintances aresometimes shocked to discover that my father was the white. Racist stereotypes dictate that the animalistic black male pursues the blond haired white female (therefore making him a threat to white civilization) but what kind of white man would willingly choose to marry an African-American women? Such are the kind of questions interracial families receive. Also, be aware that incremental approaches also run the risk of you becoming the “black friend” and being reduced to an Uncle Tom. Make use of these opportunities as valuable teaching moments, helping your friends to recognize problematic behaviors and negative stereotypes.
Any activism in majority white and working class cities requires realizing that the source of rage may be legitimate, but it’s focused at the wrong target. Lancaster, like many struggling post-industrial communities, struggles with drug abuse and seemingly endless unemployment. Most of the overtly racist people I’ve met over the years suffer from tough economic situations and may need a helping hand. Providing this hand is one of the best way to break racist stereotypes. The North, much like the South, has its racists too. Not even the home of the Union’s bulldog General Sherman is free from the influence of racism.
(Photo descriptions: 1st, the featured image is a mural painting of General Tecumseh Sherman in a Union Blue. Found in Lancaster, OH. Source: Flickr. 2nd image is a mashup of the flag of the Third Reich Nazi Germany and a Confederate battle flag. Original image editted by The Resist Daily)
 United States of America v. Larry Wayne Harris, William Job Leavitt, Jr., Criminal Complaint, Case No. MAG-98-2042-M-RLH, February 19, 1998, p. 3
 United States of America v. Larry Wayne Harris, Change of Plea and Sentencing, CR-2-95-93, April 22, 1997.