While the distribution of Klu Klux Klan fliers in Carlisle last month may have been shocking, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, community leaders said last week.
Several dozen residents turned out to the Carlisle YWCA Thursday night for a forum on racism and social justice, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, to discuss the broader implications and appropriate response to the Klan solicitations, which began appearing on lawns and doorsteps around Feb. 2.
“Yeah, it’s a surprise that flyers were found, but they’ve not left,” Safronia Perry, director of Hope Station and president of the Cumberland-Perry Advisory Council to the PHRC, said of the Klan.
“To think that there’s no one here is ridiculous. Just because they might not have a chapter here doesn’t mean they’re not here,” Perry said.
The last time the Klan held a physical presence in Carlisle was 2000, when a rally was planned in the borough. The white supremacist group has held a lower profile since then, but that doesn’t mean that people with such sympathies have left the community, Perry and others noted.
The Klan may see communities in Central Pennsylvania — York has also seen similar solicitations recently, it was noted — as easy targets for sowing racial resentment, given the continuing physical division of towns like Carlisle.
The borough’s northwestern neighborhood has a significantly higher African-American population, and significantly lower incomes, than other Census tracts, particularly the borough’s highly affluent southern reaches.
“There’s one side of town and then there’s another side of town, and we don’t always necessarily cross those lines,” Perry said.
“The way folks express how they feel about a certain part or certain area of town, that has to stop,” said Borough Councilman Sean Crampsie. “We need to start calling people out.”
“There’s a reason why York and Carlisle get targeted,” Crampsie continued. “If you say, ‘that didn’t happen in my neighborhood’ or ‘that flyer didn’t come to my house,’ that’s not good enough anymore.”
On the upside, Crampsie said, the Klan’s recent tactics show a fundamental cowardice — recruitment flyers, featuring conspiracy theories about blacks, Jews, and Communists, which are tied to bags of birdseed to weigh them down, and apparently thrown from moving vehicles.
While the Klan may be able to hit a few streets with anonymous drive-by pamphleteering, it’s a far cry from Klan members actually knocking on doors and asking residents to join their hate group face-to-face, Crampsie said.
Thursday’s crowd featured African-American residents as well as some younger Carlisle citizens — but the majority of the group was older, and whiter, and asked how they could help address issues.
At all of its town hall events — part of a “No Hate in Our State” series — the PHRC tells white citizens to leverage their social status and privileges to make racist behavior less acceptable, said Tameka Hatcher, the PHRC’s outreach coordinator.
“These town halls are not an exercise in white guilt,” Hatcher said. “We want to acknowledge that privilege and ask you, as allies in the civil rights struggle, to use your privilege. When you make other people uncomfortable for acting in a racist manner, that’s leveraging your privilege in a positive way.”
“None of us should have to give up our privilege; it’s a question of how we leverage it,” said Chad Dion Lassiter, the PHRC’s executive director. The PHRC is the state’s investigative and hearing body for anti-discrimination laws in employment, housing, and other areas.
Robin Scaer, the YWCA’s executive director, also spoke about the agency’s effort to work with schools on issues of race and domestic violence, particularly on social media where adverse behavior is often normalized and students lack a frame of reference to handle it.
“We’ve been told by our youth that there are a lot of problems with racial slurs and racial incidents happening in the schools,” Scaer said.
One of the Carlisle residents whose lawn was hit with Klan fliers was Yolanda Ingraham, Dickinson Law School’s Assistant Dean for Student Services. Like many of those who have moved to Carlisle from around the country to work for the college and law school, Ingraham said the incident was a shock.
“My kids have grown up in such a bubble, which a lot of people have, that I don’t think they have a concept of that type of blatant racism,” said Ingraham, who is African-American.
Shortly after the fliers were sighted, and publicized on social media, Ingraham said she received numerous calls and messages from professors and students.
The insidiousness of the Klan in Central Pennsylvania, Ingraham noted, can even come as a shock to students and faculty who are from larger metro areas that have higher-profile issues of racial discord and violence — one student, a black woman, was afraid to walk to class in Carlisle even though she grew up in Baltimore, Ingraham said.
But Carlisle has advantages that larger metro areas don’t in combating racial violence, said Carlisle Police Chief Taro Landis.
“Someone might pass through and drop some fliers, but your community here in Carlisle is safe,” Landis said.
Critically, Landis noted, national issues regarding police brutality and racist policing tactics are less of an issue in Carlisle given its physically small force, which Landis — who is black — can more directly supervise.
“The national media scene for police is different than what we have in Carlisle,” Landis said. “If you see one of my officers doing something you think they shouldn’t be doing, I expect you to come see me personally.”
There is still ground to make up, Landis said, as exemplified in the 2016 American Legion shooting — in which a man was shot seven times in a crowded bar, but none of the bar’s African-American patrons would identify the shooter to police.
But this divide between law enforcement and black citizens is more heavily ingrained than just one case, and it swings both ways.
Describing his career as a black man in law enforcement as a dichotomy, Landis detailed an incident in which a school security guard wouldn’t let him into a school for a presentation, refusing to believe that a man of Landis’ appearance could be a police chief and claiming that Landis “could’ve just bought” his badge and uniform.
“The reality was that this was a microcosm, in this person’s head, of what a police officer should and shouldn’t be,” Landis said.
“I think one of the things police departments don’t do and communities don’t like to do is talk about the historical aspect of police brutality,” Lassiter noted.
Not having a frank discussion about the ways in which law enforcement has been used as a means of oppression, Lassister said, will only lead to more recriminations and backlash against movements by African-Americans to reform the police system.
“It’s not a victimization thing, it’s saying there has to be more...that it has to be about community policing,” Lassiter said. “All people on the other side of the color line are saying is ‘treat us all the same.’”