Racist behavior reflects poorly on community

On the afternoon of July 30, Southwest Minnesota State University students in the Summer Bridge program spread out across Marshall in a scavenger hunt. Summer Bridge is a three week program designed to offer students who qualify an opportunity to get a head start on the college experience. They take two courses in a very intensive format, getting some major help with study skills and critical thinking and generally settling in a bit before the semester begins.

It is a wonderful program, no easy walk for either the students or the professors and staff, but it has been highly successful over the years.

The idea behind the scavenger hunt was to find interesting and engaging things about Marshall, specifically to counter the shock the students were feeling over the swastika incident the weekend previous. As a group of students stood at the corner of College Drive and Main, a truck drove up, gunned its engine and engulfed all of them in a cloud of foul black exhaust and then sped off.

It makes me sick. It is such a craven, contemptible, gratuitous act of meanness, and for it to happen to students in their first week of classes is appalling. The first weeks of college are such a trying time even when things are going well. Graduation isn’t the moment of commencement. That’s just a party. This is the moment–when you have moved away from family, are surrounded by strangers, are learning the seemingly impossible requirements of professors who seriously think you can accomplish all their assignments in a ridiculously short amount of time.

I have worked with college freshmen for many years. By the end of the first semester, most of them are seasoned veterans. But for those first weeks, they are anxious and lonely and baffled. After more than half a century I can still remember the knot in the pit of my stomach during those first weeks–a combination of excitement and anxiety and bewilderment and homesickness. It was a hard adjustment — and no mean spirited thug drove up and engulfed me in a cloud of filthy exhaust and hatred.

What is most distressing to me about this incident is to think about the phone calls home that these students have made. Imagine, as parents and grandparents, how you would feel to learn that the child you have sent off with your heart in your throat, sad to see them go, hoping so much for their success — imagine how you would feel to get a phone call telling you that some stranger unprovoked had grossly attacked them the first week they were in their new town.

Welcome to Marshall.

I know one response to this incident will be that it is just one bad actor, that this in no way represents the town or the area. But consider this. There are many places where such behavior would be unthinkable. In Marshall, a racist thug felt free to use his malfunctioning truck to assault a group of strangers, students of color, which was of course no coincidence.

And he felt empowered to do it on a main street in downtown Marshall in the middle of a summer afternoon.

There have been people stalking and harassing every protest and DFL Pop Up site. Someone has repeatedly attacked the George Floyd memorial. People waved swastikas in Walmart.

Like it or not, this all reflects on the town and area very poorly. It inevitably raises the question of what kind of community this is, what kind of community it is becoming, especially if such thuggery is greeted by silence.

No matter how strong the town’s inclination to ignore the unpleasantness, it is a question that cries out to be considered by people of decency and good will.

— Joan Gittens is a professor emerita at Southwest Minnesota State University


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