Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

L.A riots reverberate even in rural Pennsylvania

May 24, 1992


Newhouse News Service 

HANOVER, Pa. is as far removed from Los Angeles as any place in America.

It is quiet, boring, rural and consummately conservative. It is a town with a curfew to protect itself from the idle pleasures of its young and parking meters that yield five hours to the quarter. It is a place of racial and cultural sameness. Of 15,000 residents, 22 are black.

And yet, the Los Angeles verdict and the violence that followed hit close to home in Hanover after what happened last summer. Those incidents began when a group of young black men and young white women who hung out in the town square were confronted by a gang of white bikers. Hundreds of townspeople gathered to cheer the bikers on and found themselves transformed into a racist mob, shoving and shouting racial slurs until police broke it up.

While no one was seriously hurt, the confrontation unsettled a town that thought it had no problem with race.

In the year since Hanover discovered its own heart of darkness, many in town have struggled to turn the ugliness into opportunity, to confront their prejudices and overcome them. “I’ve heard people stop other people from telling a racist joke and say, ‘I will not hear any more of that,’ ” said Brent Toomey, who heads Hanover’s YWCA and wears a button with the demand, “End Racism and Sexism.”

But no one denies it has been slow going. “We may have touched the tip of iceberg, but there’s still that iceberg,” said the Rev. Charles Keller, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Hanover.

And as time passes, so does the momentum for change. “The town has all but forgotten that anything happened,” said Susan Murren, a lifelong resident who works the counter at Kittens Subs ‘N’ Snacks. “I think what this town is hoping is that it will go away.”

In the wake of Los Angeles, Hanover could prove a parable for America.

The Los Angeles verdict and its aftershocks may have been a watershed event for black America. But for white America, the long-term impact remains murky.

Some believe that the shocking verdict and searing images of inner-city rage will stir white people to understanding and action as never before. They view the verdict as a revelation to white people of just how endemic racism is and how dangerously easy it is for those, like the King jury, who dwell in white America to be its witting or unwitting accomplice. They see the ashes of Los Angeles as a warning that all Americans must come to terms with racism or face the fire next time.

Others see white people fundamentally detached and untouched by the torment of recent days, or perhaps even more scared and cynical than ever.

“What came out of the disorders of the ’60s doesn’t give us a lot of cause for hope,” said Fred Harris, a former Oklahoma senator and an author of the Kerner Commission report that sought to channel that era’s urban violence into a mandate for social change and racial rapprochement.

“The riots of the ’60s gave us Nixon and Reagan and Bush, race-based politics like the Willie Horton ads and the political death of the word ‘liberal,’ ” Harris said.

Still, Harris was encouraged by a New York Times-CBS News poll that found most Americans viewed the Los Angeles riots as a warning that the nation must turn its attention to improving race relations and rescuing the cities.

Experts on racial attitudes, such as UCLA sociologist Lawrence Bobo, warn against reading too much into first-blush expressions of white concern portrayed in the polls. “In the current moment it is an extremely easy answer,” said Bobo, who doubts it represents any deep or lasting shift in opinion.

The most likely white response, said Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker, is: “Just give up and retreat to a further outpost.”

But those on the front lines of social activism have witnessed a surge of support since L.A.

“I think Los Angeles has made the whitest of white communities realize that no one is insulated from the effects of racism,” said Carol Browngardt, executive director of the YWCA of Cleveland. Since the 1970s, the national YWCA’s “first imperative” has been to “eliminate racism wherever it exists by any means necessary,” a locution borrowed from Malcolm X.

Leo Lynch, who helps welfare recipients prepare to find jobs in Saginaw, Mich., believes the verdict, in such stunning contradiction of the videotape of King’s beating, had a profound impact on white thinking. After the verdict, Lynch organized a protest rally in Saginaw for white people “because it is our sin, the sin of white racism.”

But not all white people are willing to share the blame, political analyst Ben Wattenberg said.

“Every time you hear it said that this proves America is racist you give another 100,000 votes to the Republicans,” said Wattenberg, who is with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

He warns that if liberal Democrats expect to use Los Angeles to promote a program of federal spending rather than one emphasizing discipline and responsibility, or to try to make white America don the sackcloth and ashes of racial guilt, their party is, once again, doomed.

Jack Faxon, a veteran state senator representing mostly white suburbs of Detroit, said his constituents were outraged by the verdict. But, he said, they did not see the outcome as an indictment of them.

“I don’t think people saw this as our community. We just don’t have that (police brutality) here,” Faxon said. Nor does he believe that Los Angeles makes those he represents any more willing to help the inner city.

Indeed, 14 of 17 congressional Republicans from California opposed President Bush’s request for emergency aid to Los Angeles. As House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., put it, “There is no political base in this country for taxing rural and suburban voters and sending the money to big-city mayors.”

Concerned by the growing divide between black and white, the city council of Dubuque, Iowa, last year set out to attract 100 black families to Dubuque by 1995. At present, only 331 of the city’s 58,000 people are black, and the integration plan reaped some hateful responses, including a spate of cross-burnings.

James Brady, the mayor of Dubuque and a teacher in a small town nearby, said his students are scared, the way an earlier generation of young people worried about nuclear annihilation. “They fear for their country, they see it destroying itself,” Brady said.

But Brady has no regrets for his community’s controversial initiative. “We had the courage to look at ourselves and any time you look at your problems you have progress,” he said.

The same sentiments have echoed through Hanover, Pa., in the year since racial disturbances made plain that just because the town has very few black people does not mean it has no problem with race.

“It opened up a lot of people’s eyes that we do have a problem that was always hush-hush,” said Lisa Becker, a young mother who balances a job and college.

Becker, who is white, knows first-hand about racism in Hanover. “I was brought up to be prejudiced,” she said. But eight years ago, Becker, then 16, met a young black man, Jeff Dixon, at the mall and they dated, despite the protestations, even disgust, of most everyone she knew. Today they live together in Hanover with their son, Jeffrey, 4. They are not married in part because her family’s minister decided two days before their wedding that he could not go through with it.

During last summer’s riot, a piece of the mob, about 40 strong, converged on her home, hurling racial insults and demanding that Jeff come out. When Becker asked her mother to take her and her son in for safekeeping for a few days, her mother refused.

“She said, ‘You got yourself into this mess, you get yourself out of it,’ ” Becker said.

What apparently provoked anti-black sentiment in Hanover last summer was the sight of other white girls hanging out with black guys.

Toomey, the head of Hanover’s YWCA, said it was too much for many Hanoverians who automatically view any black person as an outsider.

“Most people in school are real prejudiced,” said Jason Kingsborough, a junior at Hanover High. “Because we don’t know any black people,” Janette Kessel, a senior, said.

But Terry Conover, a high school teacher and wrestling coach, believes his town is changing.

“I don’t think the community has closed down. I think it’s opening itself up.”

Within hours of last summer’s disturbances, Brent Toomey, clergy and others formed Hanover United for Equality, Diversity and Non-Violence. When a Klan splinter group marched through town last fall, Hanover United offered counter-activities to keep people away. Churches pealed their bells in sorrow.

They have worked on making people more sensitive to the racism within themselves and their community. But they also know that the people they reach are those least resistant to change. “Preaching to the choir,” Keller said.

“Some people have changed,” Lisa Becker said. “But there hasn’t been a complete turnaround.”

At the local radio station, Larry Hargrove, who is host of a folksy noon talk show, “Lunch with Larry,” said reaction to L.A. was greater than it would have been a year ago because of Hanover’s own encounter with racial strife.

“Most people want to get on with life and put that behind them,” Hargrove said. “But it’s also something that’s left its mark on the community, something we’ve learned from.”


Written by jonathantilove

July 27, 2022 at 3:56 am

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