Robert Azzi: Systemic racism in New Hampshire: The view from Exeter

For the Monitor
Published: 6/21/2020 6:20:13 AM

It was Halloween, 1990 or 1991, and my daughter – dressed as an angel with aluminum foil wings – was with friends trick-or-treating. We were fairly new in Exeter and, as we didn’t live in a built-up neighborhood, we had taken the kids to another part of town.

Everyone was having a good time – the kids were giggling and already on the way to a sugar-high – until, on the porch of one house, they were greeted by a man in white KKK robes and hood who offered them candy.

The confrontation was beyond offensive: We were shocked – the fun was over.

The racist was Tom Herman, who lived in Exeter for two years. I was reminded of his story by remarkable reportage, by Hadley Barndollar, on the history of the Klan in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region published last week.

While initially it came as a surprise that New Hampshire had publicly harbored thousands of KKK members into the 1920s – and then Herman as recently as 1991 – on reflection it makes sense.

How else to try to contextualize the response from so many people both to the protests and demonstrations that have roiled this nation for the past three weeks, and to explain the unshakable base of support that President Trump has incited not just in the Seacoast but throughout the Granite State.

There is history here, in this America’s third whitest state, and I wonder if some of it is coming from some unreconstructed racists who are descendants of local Klan families.

Children aren’t born racist: Someone teaches it to them.

I started writing my weekly column in 2011. Within days I was receiving ugly letters and comments and, naively believing that minds were open, I had coffee with a couple of the commenters – separately – both unflinching evangelicals: one a high school educated white male, the other college educated.

Their complaints were similar – and ignorant: How could African Americans be accepted if they wore baggy jeans, listened to loud incomprehensible music, and had strange names that no one could spell or pronounce? Why were “those people” angry all the time?

Why, they were really asking, didn’t black people assimilate and become more white?

The reality was that they were garden variety racists – expressing predictable grievances and resentments – who believed that their racial group was superior to another racial group; indeed, they believed they were superior to all other races and religions.

I stopped having coffee with them: They were too belligerent and hopelessly contentious.

“For those of us who work to raise the racial consciousness of whites, simply getting whites to acknowledge that our [white] race gives us advantages is a major effort,” Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, writes. “The defensiveness, denial, and resistance are deep.”

These are people who, out of fear or ignorance, can’t recognize the abundance provided by America’s vision and values and choose to live out of scarcity.

It got worse: by 2015 in Rochester, a MAGA supporter was telling Donald Trump: “You know our current president is (Muslim). You know he’s not even an American.”

Trump, constant purveyor of such false myths and racism, responded: “We need this question.”

Trump has a well-documented history of being a racist since the 1970s and, since becoming president, he’s empowered his followers – along with other assorted bigots, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, white militias, etc. – to publicly vent their abhorrent sentiments.

While some public officials stand strong and write that “New Hampshire is not immune to racism. We must go beyond the lip service of just welcoming diversity and address the reality of implicit bias and structural and systemic racism in our own communities…” others write that “racism” and “white privilege” are convenient terms meant to shut conversation down, denying – in spite of overwhelming evidence – that systemic racism exists, both in New Hampshire and throughout America.

Systemic racism is the manifestation of prejudice plus power.

“To be white is to be afforded one’s individuality,” Ibram X. Kendi writes on white privilege. “Afforded the presumption of innocence. Afforded the assumption of intelligence. Afforded empathy when crying or raging. Afforded disproportionate amounts of policy-making power. Afforded opportunity from a white network. Afforded wealth-building homes and resource-rich schools. Afforded the ability to vote quickly and easily.”

White privilege prevails throughout America.

For Donald Trump, for his base, there’s no fact or historical memory that can change their minds. Their fears, prejudices and ignorance are so deeply embedded – perhaps generational – that they trump reality.

And those fears and prejudices are manifest daily in the press and social media.

For example, some Trump re-election officials post false propaganda, fake sites, and pictures of violent events that happened years ago on Facebook in an attempt to delude casual readers into linking them to the unrest that followed the lynching of George Floyd, while recently an opinion writer dog-whistled that “[Anarchists] are using protesters as a weapon… manipulating their rightful anger and grief, as a means to their own end.”

Others are less literate:

“What is truly sad about this entire event is how badly so many white people hate themselves.”

“Liberals are using Racism as an excuse to erase Black people. Who are the real racists? #auntjemima was a Black Actress!!”

“I’m not sure exactly what unconscious bias training looks like … You get down on your knees … you apologize for your #WhitePrivilege … and you beg for forgiveness …”

“They are all just looking for an excuse to loot and destroy! The world has gone mad!”

As the nation was being roiled by anti-racism protests – and racist responses – “Corky” Messner, a Republican candidate challenging Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, told supporters that “we are essentially up against multiculturalism and the values that we know that are being taught in our public schools and universities that are not part of the values and beliefs that made this country great. … So we have a battle on our hands.”

“We won’t be able to hold this country together if we don’t have a common culture,” he said. “And that common culture is what made America great.”

No, Mr. Messner, America’s not an identity: it’s an idea. What has made America great are its values of pluralism and diversity, of being a refuge for huddled masses yearning to be free. It’s not a nation where privileged white elites are protected by walls.

We will hold it together in spite of you.

In July 2019 Exeter Police Chief Stephan Poulin wrote: “Recently, the Exeter Police have been made aware of some disturbing reports in which [Phillips Exeter Academy students] have alleged to have been treated in a completely unacceptable manner. ... Students of varying races and religions have come forth and talked of people reportedly driving by them and shouting racial epithets, insults, taunts, swears, or even so far as to throw cigarettes near them.”

“NO ONE,” Poulin wrote, “should have to endure this type of treatment.”

Not Rayshad Brooks, not George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor – not “those people!”

Not you. Not I.


Black lives matter.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at His columns are archived at


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