Summer of Smith

How Ben Blew Into (and Out Of) Bloomington

In the minds of some here— both white and minority— Smith wasn't the only one who needed a better outreach effort. "Sure, it's a great multiracial, multicultural community, but I've lived here 18 years, and I've known, what, two black people?" one white resident says. Commenting on the city's Fourth of July parade— held just hours after Yoon was shot— several white citizens ruefully and bemusedly remarked on the fact that a float devoted to racial unity (in reaction to Smith) was adorned almost totally with middle-aged white liberals. "When this one asshole showed up in town, it was like Bloomington United reacted as if the whole Klan was descending on us, and I felt like there was more than a whiff of delusion and self-righteousness and not a lot of focus on the larger issues of minority concerns," says another longtime white resident.

Pashelle Johnson knows the feeling. A black Bahamian who married a local white man, she initially chalked up whatever rudeness she encountered to boorishness, not racial animus. Now she's more inclined to believe the latter. "I have a white friend who has an African American child, and she says the experience has opened her eyes to racism," Johnson says. "She thought Bloomington would be better, but it's not. I've experienced incidents that show racism here is alive and well— I asked a woman I had a fight with at work if she would have reacted differently if I was white, and she said 'yes,' adding that she just doesn't like blacks." Charles Brown, the retired police captain, echoes the sentiment. "They got a group of people together who weren't bigoted and talked over what to do about a bigot, but that doesn't deal with the prejudice here that's still prevalent and undercover. But I've seen this before— something happens every couple years, everyone gets together, but nothing substantial comes out of it in the long term."

Willsey— also the city's safety and civility coordinator— says that since Bloomington United began, he's developed an increased awareness of the need for more focused, grassroots institutional action, and to his credit, he's been working to facilitate it. And it's not as though his boss— Mayor John Fernandez, who keenly remembers being called a "tomato picker" as a kid growing up two hours north of here in Kokomo— is unsympathetic or unaware; as a city councilman, he endured reams of hate mail when he championed a local human rights ordinance that, among other things, made Bloomington the only city in Indiana that protects homosexuals against discrimination in employment and housing. "I couldn't agree more about the importance of sustaining these efforts, especially as I appreciate more how complex race and class discussions areas are," Willsey says. "Moving to a new level" is, as he puts it, "yet to be seen." But then, as a local government official trenchantly noted upon encountering this reporter, "I'm sure we have so much to learn from Rudy Giuliani and Al Sharpton."

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