community issues

Rethinking how we cover the opioid epidemic

Rural communities have been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic, but rural newspapers have been disproportionately quiet about it. They seem to cover it as a criminal-justice problem, when it is primarily a health problem. Smart law enforcers and first responders will tell you that, but many if not most rural papers seem reluctant to cover it that way – to dig into the reasons for addiction, the struggles to overcome it, the search for treatment and the stories of success.

Part of this, I know from experience, is the natural reluctance of community journalists to report facts that reflect poorly on their communities. In many places, they probably think there’s already enough bad news.

Another big factor is the stigma that still surrounds people with drug problems. That is more prevalent in rural areas, and it keeps people from seeking help – and clings to those who do, putting them at risk for relapse. The role of stigma was well researched by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and The Rural Blog reported on it at

The folks at Oak Ridge said local news media can counteract stigma with reporting. To help rural journalists cover substance abuse, behavioral health and recovery, they and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog) are planning a one-day workshop in mid-November. Watch for details on it soon.

Meanwhile, start reporting. Get local data. Ask your coroner each month for death certificates, and for advice on what families might be willing to talk about the struggles of addiction that ended in death. Talk to people in the treatment community, and then to people with substance-abuse disorder.

See how the problem developed in your area, by using the pill-distribution database that The Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail uncovered. Aaron Nelson of The Paintsville (Ky.) Herald did, and gave his readers the names of the stores that sold the most pills. The Rural Blog took note at

The opioid epidemic has had a disproportionate effect on poor areas, but prosperous farm counties are part of it, too. The Farm Bureau and the Cooperative Extension Service are active on this front; we had a blog item about their program in Ohio at

Farmers have been struggling for years with financial instability, loneliness, lack of insurance or access to mental-health care, and the pressure to not quit what may have been a way of life for generations. Now they have to deal with a trade war and unfavorable weather, and are five times more likely to commit suicide than other Americans. The federal government is funneling more money to hep them. Read about it at

Suicide and drugs go hand in hand. In rural areas, jail suicides are increasing, and the trend is linked to drug withdrawal and mental Illness,” says The Crime Report, a publication of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, a good source for cutting-edge information on those topics. Read more at

Suicide is another touchy subject for community journalists, but it’s time to stop being timid about it. Did you know rural residents are more likely than those in large cities to think about, plan or attempt suicide? They are, and The Rural Blog took note at

Here some other topics we’ve had on the blog lately that you can localize:

A U.S. Senate report revealed nearly 400 poor-performing nursing homes whose problems were not made clear by a government website. Local papers picked up on it, and we did at

Many rural hospitals are in trouble, but some have found ways to overcome adversity, survive and thrive. “The secret sauce is always … strong, collaborative leadership,” National Rural Health Association CEO Alan Morgan told U.S. News and World Report. This is just one of many hospital stories on The Rural Blog; read it at

Rural electric cooperatives are overly reliant on coal, the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs and two other nonprofits charged. We contacted the co-ops’ national trade group, which said they are moving to “cleaner energy sources.” What’s your co-op doing? Start reporting with our blog item at

Electronic cigarettes are an epidemic among young people, but many school districts are lax about it. Not in Fairbury, Neb., which requires any student in grades 7-12 to be subject to random nicotine testing if they participate in extracurricular activities. We took note at What is your school district doing about “vaping?” (By the way, it’s not really vapor, as the tobacco companies say; it’s an aerosol, and it has a lot of nasty stuff.)

Community newspapers increasingly charge for obituaries, an unfortunate result of digital media’s erosion of their advertising base. But the news columns of the best papers still include news obits about people who made their mark on the community or region. And sometimes a paper will double down and run a long tribute to a truly unique individual. The Valley News of Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., did that with the moving, funny and insightful eulogy for a well-known dairy farmer and former state legislator, David Ainsworth. We picked it up at

Valley News Editor John Gregg sent us that story. If you do or see stories that should be on The Rural Blog, email them to me at [email protected].


community issues Community Journalism

Closing of newspapers leads to more local political polarization

The rise in political polarization in the U.S. in undeniable, but it may have nothing to do with the politics, according to a recent article published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

National publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have seen tremendous growth in the age of polarization.

But what about local publications?

According to NiemanLab, in 2006, local American newspapers employed over 74,000 people and circulated to 52 million readers on weekdays. In 2017, this number dropped significantly to only 39,000 people employed by a local paper and a circulation of fewer than 31 million Americans.

The“death” of newspapers has been much-talked-about, but the political polarization that arises from a lack of local news hasn’t been discussed near as much.

The Journal of Communication” argues that losing a local newspaper can encourage citizens to rely on national media, which is typically overwhelmingly partisan, and can change their opinions while voting.

NiemanLab found that “voters were 1.9 percent more likely to vote for the same party for president and senator after a newspaper closes in their community, compared to voters in statistically similar areas where a newspaper did not close.”

Additionally, NiemanLab reported that split-ticket voting decreased by 2 percent in towns that lost their local newspaper.

What can we do to stop it?

My answer: Support your local newspaper.

A couple dollars toward a subscription to your local publication could make the difference between a city filled with polarized, one-sided news and one filled with honest, unbiased reporting — information needed to participate in your democracy.

Pay a few bucks. It’s worth it.

community issues Newswriting

Here’s some help in reporting on suicides

High-profile deaths always grab headlines. Suicides especially draw attention as witnessed by the deaths of renowned fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain. The news was carried in big and small newspapers alike.

Yet, when suicide strikes in our own communities, many newspapers ignore the news. It’s time that all newsrooms have a thoughtful conversation on how to report suicide in a sensitive and forthright manner.

Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides accept that some circumstances demand an exception. Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The rising incidence of suicides, unfortunately, demands a broader approach. Suicide is in no uncertain terms an epidemic.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that suicide rates have increased in all but one state during the past two decades with half of the states showing increases of more than 30 percent. Nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016 – more than twice the number of homicides – making it the 10th-leading cause of death and one of three that is increasing. Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2016. The rise in suicides in the United States crosses lines of age, gender, race and ethnicity.

There is no single approach, no right or wrong way to report suicides. Here are some things to consider when establishing guidelines:

  • –When do suicides warrant front-page coverage?
  • –How much detail should be included? Should the cause of death be identified?
  • –Should suicide ever be reported as the cause of death in an obituary versus in a separate story?
  • –What steps can be taken to ensure timely reporting?
  • –Should certain words or phrases be avoided in the reports?
  • –Should suicide reports be accompanied with hotlines where others can turn for help?

As with the development of any news policy, it’s important to broaden the conversation beyond the newsroom. Identify and talk with those individuals who may have valuable perspectives. Health-care professionals should be near the top of your list. Talk as well with school counselors, mental health advocates, clergy, law enforcement personnel and medical response teams. Ask to speak at a meeting of grief support groups.

Many communities have formal grief response teams that go into schools when a classmate has died. Connect with them, too. And don’t forget that your co-workers may be among the best resources. They and their families are community members, too.

Newsrooms often become preoccupied with reporting a news event, then fall short on attention to follow-up stories. Suicides can present an excellent opportunity for stories that address the causes of suicide, namely depression.

These can be worthwhile and educational stories. But newspapers must consider the impact on victims’ families and friends. No matter how the stories are pursued and presented, personal tragedy is the springboard for the coverage. Follow-up stories, no matter how well intentioned, will put a family back in the spotlight.

Responsive and responsible newspapers can do a great deal to help communities work through tragedies, but coverage must be done with sensitivity. Don’t automatically reject the idea of approaching families of the deceased. During my tenure at Red Wing, we connected with one family whose son took his life four years after losing his brother in a car accident, never recovering from his loss. It resulted in a front-page story and a remarkable series of events that resulted in the insertion of curriculum in eighth-grade health class addressing depression and the signs of suicide.

The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment to mention in an obituary. That is unfortunate, because suicide truly is an epidemic as the statistics underscore.

A first step to addressing suicide is to acknowledge and talk about suicide in our communities. Newspapers are in the perfect positon to start and guide that conversation.

Suicides are the kind of news that should be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorder of local events – a living history of our home towns. They are necessary if community newspapers are to remain relevant and represent themselves as the source of local information.



community issues Localizing the news

Stories to localize: mental illness and drug addiction

The stigma that still surround mental illness and drug addiction, especially in rural areas, are major obstacles to addressing those issues. Rural news media can play an important role in reducing stigma and helping individuals and communities face up to their problems and deal with them.

The Paducah Sun saw that opportunity when a 13-year-old eighth grader with a long list of mental-health issues told nearly 100 attendees at the West Kentucky Health and Wellness Summit about her condition and its stigma.

Julia Burkhart has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but “When she walks down the hall, you wouldn’t know her from any other student,” David B. Snow reported for the Sun: “There are no identifying marks or signs on her to indicate she has mental illness. The problem is the signs placed on her by other people.

“At the meeting in Paducah, Julia said her problems began with bullying in kindergarten, which became so bad in fifth grade, with social-media attacks and rumors that something was “wrong” with her, that she started cutting herself. She changed schools and got better, but recently relapsed into eating disorders and taking pills “to escape,” she said. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and went back into the outpatient program at the beginning of this school year, Snow reports.

“I graduated in February from outpatient, and I’ve been continuing to better myself,” Julia told the crowd. “And here I am now, speaking about my problems. I take pride in my recovery every day, and I am proud to have gone through this. It’s made me realize what’s really important.” And she spoke because she wanted to; her mother was originally invited to share the family’s story.

Snow wrote that Julia’s experience is common among people with mental illness. Dr. Laurie Ballew, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Lourdes Hospital, told him, “People have this negative thought process about mental health, not realizing that our brain is the organ that controls our body.”

Snow’s story is a remarkable example of how news media can reduce or eliminate the stigma that surround issues of behavioral health. We excerpted it on The Rural Blog at

Rural resentment reverberates

A resentment of coastal elites is a key to the support that President Trump still enjoys in parts of the country that abandoned their usual Democratic allegiances for him in 2016. That’s a thread that runs through three recent in-depth reports: one by a Democratic pollster, one by The Washington Post’s chief political reporter, and the other by a conservative journalist who was one of the leaders in defining the who and why of Trump voters before the election. We boiled them down on The Rural Blog at

The reports came from pollster Stan Greenberg, on voters in suburban Macomb County, Michigan; the Post’s Dan Balz, who reported from rural counties along and near the upper Mississippi River; and Salena Zito, who with Republican operative Brad Todd wrote The Great Revolt, a new book based on “10 counties they studied across the five states that tipped the election to Trump, as the Post’s James Hohman describes it in the paper’s “Daily 202.”

Here’s what Michael Martin of Erie, Pa., told the book authors: “Live in a small or medium-sized town, and you would think we were dragging the country down. We aren’t a country just made up of large metropolitan areas. Our politics and our culture up until now has dictated that we are less than in the scale of importance and value.” That is reflected in much of the national news media, based mainly on the East Coast, and resentment of media portrayals is a big part of the attitudes of rural voters, who gave at least 62 percent of their votes to Trump, a record.

Zito and Todd note “a polarization between those who live in dense cosmopolitan communities with higher-than-average education levels and those who live in rural, exurban and industrial locales that, as a rule, have . . . lower-than-average education levels and less transience.” Four of the 10 counties where they did interviews are rural; evangelical voters are represented largely by rural Howard County, Iowa, where Obama got 62 and 59 percent of the vote and Trump got 58.

Greenberg has long studied “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County, which went for Barack Obama twice and then for Trump. “Trump voters complain that there is no respect for President Trump or for people like them who voted for him,” Greenberg wrote in a memo with Nancy Zdunkewicz of Democracy Corps. “A healthy diet of Fox News is feeding the white working-class men fending off the challenges of Trump’s opponents,” they write. “They continue to appreciate how he speaks his mind.”

Balz’s report, in a special section of the Post, was illustrated by a map that also showed how reliably Republican the rural vote has become. Balz interviewed some of the same people for more than a year, tracking how attitudes about Trump shifted gradually.”

You can read Balz’s piece or our Rural Blog item for details. I mention these stories because anyone can do them; it’s just a matter of going out and talking to people. The more you talk with, the better your questions will be, and the better your stories will be. If you so such stories, or report or see news that should be on The Rural Blog, email me at [email protected].

community issues Ethics

Publisher tells why she decided to run for school board

Editor’s note: Stamford publisher Callie Metler-Smith recently ran for and won a local school board position — an unconventional move in a profession that has long held that journalists should stay out of politics.  We asked her to explain why she did it.

As small town newspaper publishers, editors, and reporters we all know the rule. We are ethically bound by our position to remain impartial and unbiased in our reporting. When I opened my small town community newspaper almost 10 years ago, there was a rule set forth in my newspaper’s style book. It read, “As an employee of Clear Fork Media Group you should at all times appear impartial and never hold an elected position.” After all, how can you report on a board if you are also serving on that board?

So how do I, a newspaper owner and publisher with newspaper ink going back four generations find myself running and winning a spot on my local school board?

I would like to say there is a simple answer, but there isn’t. My main reason for running was that I wanted to be more involved in the community I love. At the beginning of 2018, I set one simple goal for myself, to be more involved and serve in my community.

Over the last few years, I have covered fewer meetings, letting my editor take the reins in those areas, but have attended more community-minded meetings, such as Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and local Lions Club. I realized as both a small business owner and a woman, that it was my job to become more connected to my community, and that this was where my passion lies, especially since the community my newspaper covered was the same one where I had grown up and the school was the one I had attended K-12.

I also noticed that my job as mom to three of the kids attending our local school district was enough to show interest in the direction the school was going. Since two of my kids are special education and require more hands-on attention, I often see a side of the school others don’t. It is the side of hardworking people who often don’t get the credit for the work they do. One day an incident at the school showed me an interesting perspective.

When I mentioned the incident to an administrator and offered some insight on how I felt about it, I got an interesting response: “I’ve never thought of that before. You should really run for school board, you have a very unique perspective.” The seed of running was planted.

I asked a few other people what they thought and got basically the same reaction from every single one. Not only did I know a lot about the school district and offer a unique perspective, I had also been sitting in the audience of the local school board meetings for more than 10 years.

So I did it. I signed up.

I had already discussed with one of my employees that they would be responsible for covering all school board meetings and had to remain unbiased in their accounts. I also got the opinion of other newspaper people I knew.

When election day came, I was elected and I had done it. I broke my own rule. I also had not heard from any of my subscribers concerned about my running — in fact many of them said they were excited about the prospect.

The truth is that we as community newspapers are in our own little category. We may report on what is going on in our town, but we are also part of that town. We may write about a fight that broke out in a City Council meeting on Monday, but chances are on Friday we will find ourselves sitting next to the mayor at lunch. In a town of 3,000 people, it is impossible for it to be any other way. We have a leadership position in our community. We are the town crier, the town cheerleader, and the local fact-checker for our town. We also are a local business owner, reside in the town, seek medical care at our local hospital, and have kids who attend the local school district. It is impossible to be impartial when you have a personal stake in the decisions your local elected officials are making.

As for my new hat of school board member, is it an odd hat for a newspaper owner to wear? Yes. Did I ever think I would wear it 10 years ago? No. But I am very excited about what adventures this new hat will bring.

community issues Localizing the news political coverage

National politics generate local story ideas

As newspaper publishers worried about tariffs on newsprint, farmers and others in rural America worried about tariffs on other products that could spark a trade war. The Rural Blog is keeping its readers current on trade and many other issues; here’s a sampling of stories from the last couple of months.

One-third of U.S. soybeans go to China. The president of the American Soybean Association called President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum “a disastrous course of action,” and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said farmers have “legitimate anxiety,” not just about retaliatory tariffs on products, but on the steel tariffs’ effect on farm-equipment costs. See our report at

In mid-March, the last U.S. maker of steel beer kegs, in Pottstown, Pa., laid off one-third of its workers. We reported that at The Brookings Institution calculated the impact of the tariffs on each state and produced a good chart, which we ran at The Washington Post produced a chart showing how Republican opinions on trade have shifted to match Trump’s; we ran it at with a Politico report saying agriculture is “particularly vulnerable” to retaliatory tariffs.

Double whammy

In February, Perdue told Congress that the rural economy is fragile, and as he was speaking, the American Farm Bureau Federation was publishing a warning from a Tennessee farmer about another big issue facing rural America: the opioid epidemic. “Our focus on national regulations and global trade are real issues that need to be addressed, but the future of farming and ranching may be just as dependent on our awareness of curbing the opioid dependency in our grassroots communities where individuals influence national changes,” he wrote. See

New research from the University of Kentucky shows that the opioid epidemic isn’t disproportionately rural, but rural areas have a tougher time dealing with it because of limited access to treatment. We reported it at Research by Penn State and Texas A&M concluded that the crisis may be exacerbated by declining farm income, extreme weather and other natural disasters. Read about it at

One challenge to dealing with the opioid epidemic is the stigma still attached to addiction in many rural areas, but that can be countered with reporting of success stories about people who overcome addiction, according to recent research we reported at Stigma is also an obstacle to mental-health treatment in rural areas, we reported at

Your local health

The annual County Health Rankings, released March 14, are a snapshot of each county’s health factors and outcomes, compared to other counties in the same state. They are something of a blunt instrument, but sometimes that’s what it takes to get people’s attention. Our research in Kentucky shows that newspapers are increasingly reporting their county’s rankings. Read our story, with a link to them, at

When it comes to health care, the Medicaid program is the main linchpin for rural areas, partly because of the support it provides for hospitals and clinics. It pays for more than half of rural births, Kaiser Health News noted in its “Medicaid Nation” series, which we gave a glimpse at The rural benefits of Medicaid are not widely known; rural residents tend to vote Republican even as GOP lawmakers vote to reverse Medicaid’s expansion.

Maps with local data

If you read The Rural Blog regularly, you know that we love maps with local data, usually at the county level. There’s enough interesting data out there for every newspaper in America to publish a significant data point in every edition, but not enough of them do it. Here are some maps we’ve run lately.

An interactive map with local data showed the level of economic distress in every county, and some may surprise you:

Politico did an interesting story about financial guru Dave Ramsey, in which he said he sees more people worrying about their finances. It included a map showing, in ranges, the percentage of people in each county who are the targets of debt collectors. We shared it at

A national study with an interactive map found that, in 99 percent of U.S. counties, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food-stamp) benefits are not enough to cover the full cost of an inexpensive meal, even for those who have no net income. See

Also on the food front, a study found that independent grocery stores in rural areas were hit harder by the Great Recession than those in urban areas. It included a county-level map showing the number of independent groceries for every 10,000 people. See

The lack of healthy grocery supplies in some rural areas may be less about supply than demand, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. We reported it, with a county-level map, at

A study of deaths due to alcohol, drugs, suicide, and interpersonal violence included a county-level map: Your county’s number of drug-overdose deaths may surprise you, because most don’t make the news, but the number shouldn’t be a surprise of you are keeping up through your local coroner or medical examiner.

Something else that often goes unreported, but your coroner can tell you about, is suicide. The more rural a place, the higher its suicide rate is likely to be. An interactive map from Governing magazine tells the story, and we shared it at

If you see stories, maps or anything else with rural resonance that belong on The Rural Blog, let me know at [email protected].

community issues rural journalism

Community newspapers needed to provide a voice for rural America

A year ago this month, Donald J. Trump surprised most of the world and probably himself by winning the presidential election. He couldn’t have done it without rural America.

The numbers in the exit polls were clear.  Trump won 62 percent of the rural vote, more than any modern president.  And here’s the statistic that shows just how rural his victory was: If you divide up the vote by the rural continuum of the Department of Agriculture – which has nine steps, from most rural to most urban – the smaller a place’s population, the stronger its vote for Trump, with one very small exception inside the error margin.

Trump’s percentage continued a recent trend of Republicans winning more and more of the rural vote. The biggest gain was actually made when Mitt Romney ran, but rural turnout was down significantly in 2012, especially among Democrats, so that boosted Romney’s percentage. But there was a better rural turnout in 2016 – and that was a key to Trump’s victory in the big swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

That surge in turnout, and rural America’s choice of a man who is probably our most urban president ever, suggest that some big and bad things have been going on in our rural communities – some things that made them vote for him.

There are many was to measure those things, but the most important may be the simplest: Each year from 2012 through 2016, fewer people lived in rural America than the year before. Those losses were pretty small, but there had never been a decline in the total number of rural people, just in the rural percentage of the U.S. population.

Rural America is losing population mainly because it lost, during the Great Recession, jobs and businesses that have not come back. One year ago, employment in metropolitan areas was almost 5 percent higher than in the first quarter of 2008, the official start of the recession. But outside metro areas, employment was about two and a half percent less.

We have seen that decline all over rural America, in closed factories, vacant storefronts and streams of workers commuting to more urbanized places. In many places, there is also a social and cultural decline, indicated by above-average drug use and divorces, poor health, increasing mortality rates among middle-aged whites, and a workforce that shrinks as disability payments expand. The Wall Street Journal did a good job documenting this several months ago in a package that said the statistics of rural America resemble those of inner cities 30 years ago.

This isn’t just about statistics.  It’s about feelings, which are usually more influential in an election.  In rural America, there is a documented resentment of urban elites, including the news media — reflecting a feeling that rural areas aren’t getting a fair shake from government and its trade deals, and are looked down upon.

So, onto this landscape strode a brash billionaire whose TV reality show and business career had made him a household name, offering few specifics but promising to “make America great again” and acting as a tribune for disaffected people who were hungry for a politician who would improve their daily lives. In more than 40 years of covering politics, I have never seen a candidate who generated the reaction, depth of support and enthusiasm as Donald Trump, especially in rural areas.

There were half a million more rural votes last year than in 2012. In urban areas, there were two and a half million fewer votes. That second number illustrates the low enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.

Some have also argued that Trump’s victory had a lot to do with race and ethnicity, and there was evidence of that in rural areas, mainly dealing with immigration.

Rural Midwestern towns that have attracted many more immigrants—particularly Latinos—were Trump strongholds in the primaries and caucuses.  Just before the general election, Gallup polls showed Trump doing well in racially isolated white communities, and the pollsters concluded that Trump voters in those places appeared to be less motivated by economic concerns than by issues of race, ethnicity and immigration. Other researchers before and after the election came to the same conclusion about the national vote.

One thing last year’s election did was wake up a lot of national journalists to the problems of rural America. The Wall Street Journal is not the only national news outlet that’s paying more attention to rural places and their problems. My friend Chuck Todd of NBC said on election night, as Trump began to win, “Rural America is basically screaming at us, ‘Stop overlooking us!’”

So, rural issues should get more attention, especially with a president who owes his victory partly to rural America. But politicians sometimes have to be reminded who they owe, and I think that is the case with rural America, because it is so diverse – too diverse to have a strong lobby that speaks for it.

Agriculture interests can help, but they can also hurt, by focusing more on increasing farmers’ wealth and just paying lip service to the needs of rural communities. There is a bipartisan Congressional Rural Caucus, but it has only 43 members – almost exactly 10 percent of the House of Representatives. Rural America is 15 percent of the population, and it needs a stronger voice. Rural newspapers could help provide it.


community issues

Saying goodbye to Dixie

I grew up whistling Dixie. Literally. It was one of the first songs my daddy taught me, and I liked it. A third-culture kid growing up in British Commonwealth countries, it gave me a connection to my home state of Louisiana. It evoked images of grand plantation homes like Tara in Gone with the Wind, as well as more humble memories of my grandparents’ farm in the rural South. More than anything, though, I just liked the tune.

While many of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, I never thought they were fighting for slavery. Most of my people were country folk, and while segregation was common, we weren’t taught to hate colored people. In fact, my dad told stories of earning some pocket money as a kid by picking cotton alongside African-Americans. He never claimed to be better than they were. There was social separation, yes, but overt racism, no.

Fast forward to my college years, after my return to the United States, and I began to see things differently. We were told to lock our car doors if we were going through the “dark” side of town. When an African-American (male) friend gave me a ride back to Houston late one night, someone told me that I could have put myself in danger by riding with a black man because someone might see that and I “might get shot.” I couldn’t believe it.

At the same time as I was coming to grasp with the reality of racism in the U.S., however, I also saw groups of black college students congregating together on the steps of the student center, without any white students. I pondered this, wondering why African-Americans would fight so hard for desegregation and then separate themselves out.

Later, I figured out that “social separation” was not always forced, but just a matter of cultural differences; or it was easier for some people to do than the hard work of trying to build bridges. I was fortunate to have friends of many races, cultures and backgrounds, but that wasn’t the case for most people. Most people, I learned, gravitate toward others who are most like themselves.

Over the years, I have learned a lot about the differences between North and South, especially with regards to race relations. I can speak with more authority now that I have spent time in cities across the country, and have a child who is of a different race. Up until this year, she has been in Title 1 schools where Caucasians were a small minority. That has given me perspective as well.

While cities across the South are tearing down their Confederate monuments, the truth of the matter is that racism is not a Southern thing (nor just an American thing, for that matter). It is alive and well in the North, even if it’s not out in the open. Some of the most virulent racists I have ever met have been from Northern states. “Social separation” doesn’t begin to describe the hatred for minorities that filled their hearts.

To white people who would say that prejudice works both ways, yes it does. When my daughter is ridiculed at school for having a white mom, I feel it. And yet, when I make the effort to break down those barriers, and those kids and their parents realize that I’m okay with their ethnicity, any tension that might have been there is immediately erased.

Most African Americans sporting Black Lives Matter t-shirts aren’t violent BLM activists. After decades of incidents like the beating of Rodney King, and statistics showing that blacks are more likely to be killed by police, they are genuinely afraid of white people in authority. Just like Rosa Parks determined that she had a right to a public bus seat, many minorities feel they must continue to speak up for their rights to have a place in American society. Just as white people are frequently told to stay out of black neighborhoods, for fear of violent acts towards them, so black people and other minorities are told to be cautious when passing through all-white communities.

It is a sad statement on American society that we live in so much fear of one another. It is also sad, however, that we feel the need to erase the past in order to move beyond it. The violent protest by white supremacist groups over the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, shows that historical monuments hold significance for some groups.

The very fact that those monuments are now creating a rallying point for hate groups may be a good reason to take them down…or not. I think it’s up to each local community to decide which monuments to keep and which to remove. Yet, I hope that any tearing down can be done peacefully and respectfully; for only when we respect our history can we learn from it. After all, the bigger issue is not really about the statues themselves, is it? It’s about who we are and what we stand for, and that is a lot more evident in our everyday lives than in monuments of people from the past.

I will always be from the Land of Cotton and have no regrets about my Confederate heritage. Out of it has come a tradition of Southern hospitality and respect for others, including those of color. But today, I will say a virtual goodbye to Dixie and hope that the Confederate flag will wave only in museums, rather than being waved by people whose mission it is to hate. Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.