Tough Issues Of Race In Northwest Outlast Rachel Dolezal’s 15 Minutes Of Fame

Jun 22, 2015
Originally published on February 27, 2017 11:24 am

In the last week, Spokane, Washington, has severed most of its official ties with Rachel Dolezal, the local civil rights leader who gained national infamy for lying about her race.

Dolezal's position on a police oversight committee, with the NAACP, and at a local university all appear to be gone. But the scandal has touched on a sensitive subject in the predominantly white Inland Northwest. This is not the first time it's been a backdrop for conflicts over race.

Back before Dolezal became head of the Spokane NAACP, she worked for a place called the Human Rights Education Institute, just over the Idaho border from Spokane in the resort town of Coeur d’Alene.

'We don't have a very diverse population'

An exhibit at the institute shows old civil rights era photos -- events pretty far away from north Idaho. But this institute has its own backstory. One that people in Coeur d’Alene aren’t fond of talking about.

In the 1980s, Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and his followers built a compound north of town. The Southern Poverty Law Center eventually bankrupted the group. But the demographics that attracted white supremacists remain: less than half a percent of this county is African American.

Institute board member David McCaw said efforts here are meant to act as a counter-balance, but race and racial identity are hard subjects.

“We tend to not really know how to fairly deal with those questions because we don't have a very diverse population,” he said.

This was the context Rachel Dolezal entered, portraying herself to her mainly white colleagues at the institute as an African American.

And Dolezal was comfortable talking about race, openly and -- for a while -- convincingly.

“That's all she talked about,” said Kitara Johnson, a member of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.

“Because we know she had the 'struggle of the black woman.’” Johnson quickly added, “And I mean that with extreme sarcasm.”

A victim of hate crimes?

In 2011, an unexploded bomb was discovered along Spokane's Martin Luther King Day parade route. When the FBI held a community meeting, Dolezal pressed them about other hate crimes that hadn’t turned up a suspect.

“Another thing that’s gonna kind of quietly go away,” Dolezal said at the meeting.

A white supremacist named Kevin Harpham was eventually charged and convicted for the bomb. Those other hate crimes Dolezal alluded to were ones she claimed to have been a victim of herself.

Shawn Vestal, a columnist for The Spokane Spokesman-Review said he was aware of deep skepticism about those crimes, but it was hard to take some of the skeptics seriously.

“Because many of the people who would say things to me or write things to me were also saying or suggesting things that made me think they were bigots,” Vestal said. “I hear from them all the time.”

By that time, Dolezal was considered the most visible black woman in a largely white town. She was an obvious target. So when Vestal then heard the even more outrageous claim that she was faking her race, he said he didn't give it a second’s true consideration.

“I think it's been especially fraught in this town, which has so little diversity, for well-intentioned white people to consider challenging someone's race or ethnicity,” Vestal said. “Right or wrong, there is an extra layer of sensitivity there.”

'Things are changing for the better'

On the same day Dolezal flew to New York to be interviewed on the Today show, members of Spokane's NAACP were making signs saying “Integrity Matters” for a rally downtown.

Ron Toston recently moved from Seattle to Spokane and was a little surprised.

“There’s no black neighborhoods,” he said with a laugh.

Toston said the Inland Northwest does have a reputation.

“I was kind of fearful about coming over here, especially going over to north Idaho -- at first,” he said. “I haven't been a victim of it at all. You know, I'm not a victim anyway. But things are changing, for the better.”

Toston said it’s time to move on from Rachel Dolezal -- there are other people in the community ready to step up.

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