MARION — Judy Simpson remembers the time in the early 1980s when the predominantly black Cairo high school basketball team traveled to her Franklin County town to play a game and a cross was burned near the gymnasium.

In her opinion, though, since then, race relations have improved.

But these days, she finds herself more and more hiding from her Facebook timeline, certain of her friends on the social media site — for the things they say or the photos, videos or other material they like.

Material, in her opinion, that is racist or at least culturally insensitive. Like the two Sunday School teachers, friends of hers, that she says she hid from her timeline because of inappropriate comments she thought they were making about former President Barack Obama and his family.

She is among a handful of Southern Illinois residents who recently reflected on race relations in the first year since Donald Trump became president.

She thinks Trump's comments have emboldened those long-held beliefs in others.

“I didn’t think that they were that blatant in their racism," she said of her friends and other contacts. "And some of them, I don’t even think they would recognize themselves as a racist, because it’s been made OK at a national level by a person who is our president, that they they are a little bit more safe to say things, most things.”

A few studies from the Pew Research Center say as much.

In a November 2016 survey, researchers learned from a pool of about 1,200 voters that less than half — 46 percent — said Trump’s election would lead to worse race relations, while 25 percent expected race relations to improve, and 26 percent said Trump's election wouldn’t make a difference.

For Hillary Clinton supporters, 84 percent expected race relations to worsen under Trump. Among Trump supporters, half expected improvement, while 38 percent said his election as president wouldn’t make a difference.

In a study released on Dec. 19, 2017, the Pew researchers polled 1,503 adults, with the result that 60 percent of them said Trump’s election has led to worse race relations in this country.

The survey found that 44 percent of respondents said relations are worsening, while 37 percent say they are staying the same and 19 percent say they are improving.

During his campaign, Trump promised to build a "big beautiful wall" along this country's nearly 2,000-mile long border with Mexico, in an attempt to prevent people from illegally entering this country.

Trump has faced fierce criticism from some, who complained about his remarks about protests against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, West Virgnia, that turned physical and deadly.

At one of the protests, a 20-year-old Ohio man plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 others. Trump was criticized for not condemning the white protesters, but referring to that weekend of brawling and fighting as "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides."

Just this past week, Trump is alleged to have referred to Haiti and some countries in Africa as "s---hole" countries, in intimating that he preferred immigrants from places like Norway.

Like Simpson, Scott Martin agrees that the post-Trump inauguration climate has fostered racial ill-will.

"Since the election, there seems to be an increase of verbal and written comments by white citizens who seems to be bolstered that their racial biases seem to reflect those of the occupant of the White House," Martin said.

Martin, though, describes Trump as a sort of thermometer for gauging racial uneasiness and ignorance. Martin, a white man, is a lead spokesman for the Race Unity Group of Carbondale.

That group emerged from a group that came to view a documentary on race — created by a white man who said he was curious about all the dialogue about race and racial injustice and sought to discover the truth. The Race Unity Group now meets once a week, on Tuesdays to discuss thorny yet delicate issues of race. They have discussed white privilege and entitlement and police shootings in minority communities, even as their membership includes law enforcement officers.

"On the other hand, Trump hasn't started racial tensions in the USA," Martin said. "White citizens might have thought the race issue in America had improved when a black president was elected, but most black citizens can tell you a different story."

He suggests that people take a Harvard survey that you can find online to test their own racial biases.

Martin points to stories from this newspaper that are also featured on social media sites like Facebook.

Those TV or newspaper-generated stories with a racial aspect "often have many derogatory comments included by readers and viewers," he said.

He pointed to stories like those from The Southern on the Cairo housing crisis and the SIU cheerleaders who decided to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest police shootings of minorities.

"Many of the SI stories related to the housing in Cairo have comments with racial and economically charged comments," Martin said. "In The Southern, comments can hide behind a pseudo name and one can't be sure of the identity. On Facebook, people can throw out race-tainted and sometimes vile comments with no embarrassment that their comments can be traced back to themselves."

Martin notes that many of his white male friends do not agree with him in that they do not see race as an issue. He said they support Trump because they say economics and homeland security are important issues and believe Trump will improve those conditions.

Dan Selock, who also describes himself as a white male, is one of those people who said he never really had to think about issues of race. Until he started noticing that people he knew, who were non-white, seemed to not be getting bank loans or jobs they way he thought they should.

He said the Trump Administration has deliberately eliminated positions on the federal level that woudl protect the civil rights of people.

"We need that protection to be there so that people's civil rights are protected," Selock said. "Kind of secretly, or under the table, he's weakening progress that has been made throughout the country."

He started his own research, and said "learning what it was that I didn't know;" that started with his reading the book "Waking Up White" and his founding a group that offers workshops on diversity. Along the way, he met Martin and now attends Race Unity Group meetings.

While there is much understanding to be gained, he is optimistic about the future, pointing to race reconciliation work being done by the Race Unity Group, his group, Table Setters, and a group out of Marion.

"I think things are beginning to get better at the grassroots level,” Selock said. “I think things are getting better in communities where these groups are meeting and ... because it’s filling a void, it’s giving an opportunity for people to get to know other people that are different from them in their communities and get to know them on a person level."


On Twitter: @scribeest



Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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