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Patrick Jones was doing some work in an Omaha coffee shop last Monday afternoon, preparing for a UNL class he’s teaching this semester, when he flipped to Facebook and saw a post highlighting a political blog run by a new member of the Nebraska State Board of Education.
The politician’s name is Pat McPherson. The blog is called the Objective Conservative. And the phrase highlighted by the Facebook post Jones noticed — a phrase repeatedly used on McPherson’s blog over the years — made the UNL professor’s stomach turn.
Patrick Jones is a historian who specializes in 20th century African-American history. He is the author of an award-winning book on the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. He doesn’t need anyone to tell him that “half breed” is a racist slur that has long been used to demean Native Americans and people of mixed race or ethnicity. That, at its most base level, it’s a way to compare a human being to an animal, to place a man or a woman on the same level as a dog.
But it wasn’t his academic training that made it impossible for Patrick to refocus on the work he was doing at the coffee shop that afternoon. It wasn’t his years of researching and teaching that compelled him to stare at McPherson’s blog for hours, scour it for racist language, get angrier and angrier and vow to do something about it.
See, Patrick Jones happens to be the husband of a biracial woman in the last year of her medical residency at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. And Patrick Jones also happens to be the father of a biracial daughter, Zora, who is 3½.
Zora is soon to be a student in a Nebraska public school. She’s soon to be part of an education system that McPherson helps govern.
“These words matter, these ideas matter,” Jones says. “They aren’t some abstraction. They matter in real, concrete ways. They affect real people. They affect my family.”
It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and so it seems like a particularly depressing day to point out that in 2015, we have a democratically elected education official who has long run a blog peppered with overtly racist language.
But because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s also an important day to highlight the fact that Jones, a young woman named Tunette Powell and a small group of helpers started a grass-roots campaign to force McPherson to resign. And by Thursday — 72 short hours later — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts was calling for McPherson’s resignation, too.
While McPherson has thus far refused to quit, it’s undeniable that the campaign quickly placed a shocking amount of pressure on the new board member to do just that. Jones and Powell organized in a particularly 21st century way: a Facebook petition that caught fire, as well as other social networking.
They also have also their voices heard in a way that MLK himself would recognize: letters. Phone calls. Good, old-fashioned, face-to-face activism.
“No one wants a headache, right?” Powell says. “So we had to become a headache. We are going to bother you until you hear us. We aren’t going away until this changes. We are your headache. We are your migraine.”
McPherson has claimed that he didn’t write the posts with the term and also somehow didn’t realize that the term had appeared at least five times on his blog, despite the fact that he’s well-known for publicizing that same blog. His denial sounds suspiciously like the grown-up equivalent of “The dog ate my homework.”
It’s also worth noting that Pat McPherson may be the only politician in our state’s history to be asked to resign by two different governors who belong to his political party. (Then-Gov. Mike Johanns called for and received his resignation as a Douglas County election commissioner in 2003 after McPherson was charged with third-degree sexual assault for allegedly groping a 17-year-old girl in a Red Robin mascot costume. McPherson was later found not guilty.)
But the problem goes far beyond McPherson, Jones says. It goes far beyond politics.
It is there in his UNL classroom, when students of color tell stories about feeling degraded, harassed, unwelcome in the city and state. Many of these students grew up in Nebraska. Many choose to leave the state after graduation, Jones says.
It is there in the reaction to every race-related controversy, like the Norfolk Fourth of July float depicting a zombie President Barack Obama in front of an outhouse labeled “Presidential Library” and a Minden sign that blamed “Africa” for Ebola, AIDS and the sitting president of the United States.
There’s a tendency to minimize the incidents, paint them as the actions of isolated extremists who have no bearing on our wider culture. That view is convenient, both Jones and Powell think, and it stops us from having to grapple with a bigger question: Why does this sort of thing keep happening?
“It is a hard question, which is: Does everybody have access to the ‘Good Life’ in Nebraska?” Jones says. “And there’s a real reason to think that’s not always the case. Not if you are different.”
The issue is there in Patrick Jones’ own home.
His wife, Andrea, is one of the few African-American female doctors in the state. This summer, during Andrea’s residency rotation in small-town Nebraska, the family faced racial slurs, demeaning comments and questions about their biracial makeup — in short, the sort of bigotry that we would like to believe we left in 1965. His young daughter is only beginning to grasp what it means to be biracial in Omaha. In the wake of the family’s experience this summer, Zora began to focus on the differences in skin color — her mommy’s, her daddy’s, her own. Her favorite person in the world may be her African-American grandfather, a proud Air Force veteran. But on a few occasions, her dad says, Zora has started to identify herself as white. Oh-so-slightly, she has begun to favor whiteness.
“Do you have any idea how heartbreaking that is as a parent?” Jones asks. I admit to him that no, I have no idea.
I do know this, though: Powell, Jones and many others have taken their frustration, their heartbreak, and done something about it. On Facebook, they rallied thousands of people to their cause, many of whom signed a petition calling on McPherson to resign. There are Republicans and Democrats on this list, Jones says, young people and old people, and people of every conceivable race and ethnicity.
Simultaneously, they were working the levers of power, mobilizing their Facebook army to call and email principals, school board members, state senators and our governor.
Within three days, four members of the State Board of Education had publicly expressed deep reservations about McPherson’s actions. The Lincoln and Omaha chapters of the NAACP had come out strongly against him, as had the Nebraska State Education Association. The governor, who last year donated money to McPherson’s campaign, was calling on him to resign. So did U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, another fellow Republican.
Part of that action is that, in 2015, the vast majority of us can agree that it’s simply beyond the pale to call anyone a “half breed.” But part of the action can be tied directly back to Jones and Powell, and their willingness to stand up to that sort of blatant racism and say, essentially: Nope. Not this time. Not as long as I live here.
“You know what I keep hearing from people?” Jones says. “People keep telling me, ‘I’m fed up.’ ”
Patrick Jones hopes that, in some small way, he and Tunette Powell and everyone else who feels fed up did something good in Nebraska last week, in the days leading up to our celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. He hopes that they built a little bit better world for his daughter. For all our children.
“A whole lot of people believe that this isn’t a partisan issue, an ideological one,” he says. “This is an issue of decency, of fairness, of doing the right thing for ourselves, for our kids.
“It’s ordinary Nebraskans that have ultimately done this. And that, I think, is the real Nebraska way.”