Friday, January 07, 2005

Va-Megn Thoj, bigotry and Rice Lake shootings

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:52 AM |  

Note: I prepared the following post before going to a secure, undisclosed location for the new year. After thinking about it, I decided not to run it because I did not want to elevate the column by Va-Megn Thoj, which as I note in the post, I thought was going to fan the race issue flames in the murder case in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. So I decided not to post it.

In Thursday’s Pioneer Press the entire Letters to the Editor section was taken up with people “taking exception” to Thoj’s column -- as well they should. The column was a knee-jerk charge of racism that could only be viewed as a slap against the grieving families in Rice Lake. The letters in Thursday’s paper are, by the way, an excellent selection that that I’d characterize as expressing “reasoned anger.” No letter that simply blasts Thoj. It’s an excellent selection of letters.

Here’s the rub. Despite what Thoj said in his column, as a former Community Columnist (as Thoj is now), I have a certain empathy for him as a “citizen journalist.” That is the topic of the post below, which given the letters to the editor yesterday, becomes relevant. There but for the grace of God and the guidance of Ron Clark go I.

Back in my days as a community columnist for the Pioneer Press, one of the two sample columns I wrote was a column on Paul Wellstone, which used a Lord of the Rings analogy to show how Wellstone was being corrupted by power. The other was a discussion on what it means to be an American. Then Opinion Page Editor Ron Clark advised me to run the latter column as my first community columnist effort, not because he disagreed or agreed with the Wellstone column, but because he felt that it wouldn’t be in my best interest to be branded “anti-Wellstone” right out of the gate. He provided some guidance.

Unfortunately, with some of the Pioneer Press Opinion Page staff on vacation, community columnist Va-Megn Thoj obviously did not have the benefit of the sage advice I received. The result is an unfortunate OP-ED piece that I’m afraid is going to have the kind of backlash that Thoj is trying to prevent.

The general thesis of Thoj’s piece is that racism played a part in the Rice Lake shootings and is playing a part in the coverage of the incident. Certainly an understandable conclusion from a member of the Hmong community, and I am sympathetic to the notion that there may be a little truth to the contention. But the way Thoj is allowed to project his opinion is damaging to his case.

First, he takes the position of speaking for all Hmong hunters, rather than reflecting on his personal reaction to the incident. After leading his column with the admission that he went deer hunting once and never went back because of racial tension, he writes --
In the face of hostility, Hmong continue to hunt in order to maintain self-respect. They can't allow themselves to lose face by the disrespect of white hunters. Year after year they go back and say: "Here we are again. You thought you got rid of us."
Boy, after reading that were I to encounter a group of Hmong hunters in the woods, I don’t think I’d feel all that comfortable. Especially after Thoj tells me --
Hmong have their own stereotypes for white hunters: stupid, disrespectful, racist and violent. I've heard stories from Hmong hunters that start off with, "Man, we ran into some stupid rednecks," and ends with, "they think everything belongs to them."
Putting on my editor’s cap, I might have advised Thoj to take his experience -- why he didn’t go back -- not create an image of a Hmong hunter with a chip on one shoulder and a gun on the other.

Thoj then states “We don’t know what happened near Rice Lake, Wis.," but he then goes on to tells what happened.
But to me racism was the spark that caused Chai Soua Vang to allegedly kill six white hunters. The wrong choices were made by all during that encounter. Instead of politely asking Vang to leave or informing game wardens to make sure that he did, the first hunter called his buddies to surround Vang and probably threatened Vang because of his race. Outnumbered, racially taunted, and according to Vang, fired upon first, Vang didn't back down.

Instead, he reacted horribly.
Again, downing my editor’s hat, I might have advised Thoj that if he didn’t know what happened, speculation without context is probably not a good idea.

In the next paragraph he states that the media have evaded the race issue in covering the killings. In the next paragraph he states that media coverage has been racist.
Most Hmong and white folks I surveyed agree the TV coverage has been "amazingly racist." They feel the backlash against the Hmong community was partly due to the media making Vang's ethnicity a factor without a proper context. If Vang were white or black, his race wouldn't be an issue.
If Vang were white, of course race wouldn’t be an issue -- unless he’d fired on a group of Hmong hunters. If Vang were black, well . . . I kinda think it might have been an issue. Again, a little editorial counsel would have been helpful.

As an example of racism on the part of whites, Thoj goes back to a 1982 beating of a Chinese-American by angry Detroit autoworkers. If that’s the last example of white racism until the Rice Lake incident, we’re doing a whole lot better as a country on the race issue than I thought we were. Perhaps a relevant example affecting the Hmong community in Minnesota and Wisconsin might have been more relevant and more powerful in supporting Thoj’s point. An editor ought to have pointed that out.

Despite the fact that during my stint as a community columnist he was going through treatment for cancer that eventually took his life, Ron Clark took time to provide guidance on my columns. I have always appreciated that. Looking back, I can more clearly see some of the journalistic pot-holes he stirred me around. I even more appreciate his placing his respect for me as a writer above his personal views. On many things we disagreed, but he never let that disagreement interfere with his editorial responsibility. Nor did he ever use his power as editor to coerce me into a point of view. Decisions about my columns were always mine. I can only claim credit for being smart enough to listen to him.

I don’t think, in this case, Va-Megn Thoj, a non-professional writing about a highly personal and emotional topic, got the kind of beneficial editing I was fortunate to receive. I don't agree with what he wrote, but I'm willing to cut a fellow "citizen journalist" a lttle personal slack.