BOISE, Idaho — News of racist threats dogging a college football star and his fiancee may come as a surprise to the majority of residents of one of the whitest states in the nation.
But Idaho blacks have seen trouble coming ever since Boise State tailback Ian Johnson, who is black, took a knee to propose to cheerleader Chrissy Popadics, who is white, on national TV. The couple will marry Saturday. Johnson has reported receiving more than 30 threatening letters and phone calls from inside and outside Idaho.
"When Ian did that on television, every black person I know said, `He's a fool. That boy just asked for trouble,'" said Keith Anderson, a former Boise State football player who has been married to a white woman for 14 years and has two sons.
"I thought, `Uh-oh, this is gonna bite him,'" said Mamie Oliver, a leader in Idaho's African-American community since she came to teach social work at Boise State in 1972.
The threats have been widely publicized this week on national sports talk-radio, with some speculating the incident will add to Idaho's reputation as a racist haven and hurt future Boise State recruiting efforts.
But Oliver said what's happened to the couple has nothing to do with Idaho's rank as the seventh whitest state in the nation.
Instead, she said, it's about human nature.
"There's some people that have the attitude that people don't have the right to be in love with who they're in love with. It became the black young man proposing to the white girl. People have baggage, and it just caused that stuff to come out."
Oliver now teaches at Northwest Nazarene University and is pastor at Mountain View Community Fellowship. She said what's happened to Johnson and Popadics is more complex than racism alone.
"It's social baggage. We do it with color, class, age, gender, power. All those categories give people excuses to be negative toward other human beings."
Marilyn Shuler, who ran the Idaho Human Rights Commission for 20 years, wants to believe the threats have come from "a small bunch of people I call the Flat-Earth Society."
But she's troubled that anonymous attacks would come at all.
"Why would they have any negative feelings at all about wonderful people who love each other?"
Why? Because mixed marriage frightens people, said Cherie Buckner-Webb, president of the Idaho Black History Museum.
"There are people tied to belief systems that have been perpetuated for a long, long time," said Buckner-Webb, a black woman and fourth-generation Idahoan. "Blurring the lines and marrying across is scary."
Buckner-Webb said Johnson's celebrity has contributed to the shock among her white friends that anyone would make such a threat.
"It's not a big surprise to us," she said. "But he's a golden boy. He's done wonderful things, and how can one of our icons be derided?
"The truth of the matter is he remains a black man, and she remains a white woman."
Idahoans were relieved when the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations left the state in 2001 and its Hayden Lake compound was torn down, erasing a symbol of racism in the state.
But much work remains to be done, Buckner-Webb said.
"We've said, great, the Nazis are gone. Well, no, their compound is gone, but racist attitudes are still alive and well in Idaho, and all over the world."
Anderson, who played Boise State football from 1977 to 1979, has been an adjunct professor at the university for 18 years. He got his doctorate last year but has yet to achieve his ambition to become full-time faculty. Anderson said he has endured the stares when he's out with his family. He sometimes tap dances to highlight onlookers' rudeness, saying, "Did you get enough of the show?"
But Anderson said he's more concerned about institutional change than impudence. "Has Boise State ever had a black head coach in any sport, ever?"
The answer is no. Idaho State University has had a black athletic director, and both Idaho State and the University of Idaho have had black head basketball coaches.
Of Boise State's 465 full-time faculty, three are African-American, four American Indian, six Hispanic and 26 Asian. "They talk a good game about diversity, but all you have to do is walk around and see they don't really mean to do anything," Anderson said.
But it's not too late. Idaho is small enough that it can set a standard for inclusiveness, if it only aims to do it, Anderson said.
"The Aryan Nations was an eyesore, but it also was an excuse," he said. "Now what is our excuse?"
Blacks made up 0.6 percent of Idaho's population in 2005, according to the latest available census data. Hispanics were 9.1 percent, American Indians 1.4 percent. With many Hispanics also calling themselves white, the white population was 95.5 percent.
Interracial marriage has skyrocketed since 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. In 1970, 2 percent of U.S. couples were interracial. By 2005, 7 percent of 59 million marriages were biracial. Black-white marriages rose from 65,000 in 1970 to 422,000 in 2005.
Figures aren't available for Idaho, but Anderson and other black-white couples who spoke with the Statesman said Idahoans are generally welcoming.
Booker Brown came from St. Louis to Boise State in the 1970s on a basketball scholarship. He married Pam Selland, daughter of Larry Selland, the late Boise State executive vice president for whom Selland College is named.
They moved to Phoenix this year for professional reasons but loved raising their two sons in Boise, Brown said.
"Idaho is no mecca for racism," he said. "But I'm not naive enough to say that covert racism doesn't exist in Boise, Idaho, or Timbuktu. It exists in 2007, and it's probably going to exist for another 200 years."
Brown taught his sons that "when you deal with stupid stuff like that you've got to be comfortable with who you are. If you have a strong sense of who you are, people can't hurt you with words."
Maria Gonzales Mabbutt said her biracial daughter, Marisa, 8, learned to anglicize pronunciation of her Spanish name, a subtle concession to majority culture.
Mabbutt, who is of Mexican heritage, ran for the School Board in Nampa recently. When the Idaho Press-Tribune ran a photo of her she didn't like and had asked the paper to change, Marisa consoled her, saying, "Mom, it's OK, because you look white in that picture. White people will be more likely to vote for you."
"I think that's telling," Mabbutt said. "Idaho still has a long way to go. And it's about more than tolerating this group or that group. It's about individuals and communities contributing to the welfare and well-being of the great state of Idaho."
Mamie Oliver, the professor and pastor, hopes Johnson and Popadics guard their privacy after the wedding. And she prays this latest lesson does some good by prompting all Idahoans to reflect on their prejudices.
"I don't call people racists," Oliver said. "I say they've got baggage. Black folks got some, too. It's not all white baggage. It's people baggage.
"My grandmother used to say to me, `Folks is folks. Folks ain't nothin' but folks.'
"Let's come together and realize no person is an island. Let us be about the business of being positive."
(c) 2007, The Idaho Statesman.
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