Why the columnist who writes about race in Spokane got scooped on Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal, stands in front of a mural she painted at the Human Rights Education Institute,  offices in coeur d'alene, idaho In this photo taken July 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
Rachel Dolezal, stands in front of a mural she painted at the Human Rights Education Institute, offices in coeur d'alene, idaho In this photo taken July 24, 2009. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
Shawn Vestal, a newspaper columnist in Spokane, Washington, had just cleared his decks to start checking out Rachel Dolezal’s story when he got scooped last week. But Vestal wasn’t looking into whether Dolezal was black. Instead, he was asking whether her story of being a hate crime victim was real.

While he was researching previous stories about the now notorious woman who was the head of Spokane’s NAACP, one person had in passing wondered aloud whether Dolezal was really black. But Vestal dismissed the question as irrelevant.

"I probably didn't even give it 15 seconds of thought," said Vestal, a columnist at The Spokesman-Review, during a phone interview this week.

Journalistic blunder? Or completely understandable? If you're not from the Inland Northwest, you'll probably vote for the former. But if you’ve ever tried to write or talk about race in place like Spokane County, where 90 percent of people are white and black people consist of 1.9 percent of the population, you might side with the "completely understandable" crowd.

I worked in Spokane for 14 years. Vestal and I overlapped for a couple years. Dolezal’s deception will make conversations about race even harder in Spokane and the surrounding Inland Northwest, where it’s already very hard. You don't even realize how bad you are at talking about race until you move somewhere else.

Vestal was the last person to write about Dolezal's report that she had received a package of racist literature. She'd told him she was keeping a gun nearby and homeschooling her 13-year-old son because she feared for his safety. There were so many questions, Vestal said.

"I wrote the last credulous, unsuspecting piece about one of her hate crimes,” he said. "Since the morning that appeared I have been in various stages of upheaval about it.  People contacted me and said they don’t believe it.  Some of those people are horrible, thinly-veiled racists. And some are not."

Because Vestal only works part-time at The Review, he and his editor decided that this week he would start his investigation in earnest.

So when the city editor called last Thursday to tell him that the Coeur d’Alene Press was reporting that Dolezal’s parents were both white, Vestal had a “holy shit” moment. Not only had he been scooped, he'd missed the forest for the trees.

Then began the agonizing self-examination. Should he have figured it out? Should he have called Dolezal's parents? If he had known, what would he have done?

"I have no desire to do racial vetting. I don't see the value in it." he said.

The Press is the traditional competitor to The Review. Spokane is along the eastern border of Washington State. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho is just across that border in the panhandle. The Spokesman-Review has long maintained an office in Coeur d’Alene and successfully competed for their readers. I’ve worked in both cities as a reporter. I think most people saw The Review as the more worldly, sophisticated newspaper and the Press as a scrappy and sometimes amusing alternative.

Because Dolezal lived in both places and filed reports of hate crimes in both places, both newsrooms had a stake in the story.

North Idaho and the surrounding region have a history. The Aryan Nations, a white supremacists group led by Richard Butler, was headquartered on Butler’s land near Hayden, Idaho, just north of Coeur d’Alene. They were ultimately shut down in 2000 by a civil lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But the years of overt racism, including skin head marches in downtown Coeur d'Alene along with the perpetual lack of diversity, have left the communities of the region with a proverbial white elephant. While many institutions have diversity initiatives, commissions and programs, it’s still so damn hard to have a good conversation about race, because often times when you look around, there's no only white people in the room. So many people stop trying, and Vestal wants to remind them that's a bad option.

"There is a deep seated belief out there that racism is bullshit, and that when you talk about racism that’s race baiting because racism is over," he said. "People will say that racial claims are fake on some level, that they are all politically opportunistic. I feel like that attitude thrives here. People say, 'I don’t buy it.' And when we talk about it, it just gives the region a bad name."

The viral nature of the revelations about Dolezal have lead to so many great national discussions and essays about the social constructs and history of racial identity. But those same revelations have made those conversations even harder to have in Spokane.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.

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