In the 1980s, when I was a callow youth and newspapers were fat with ads, we struggled to fill The Darien News-Review. We’d do “man on the street” features to eat up space. This involved standing outside the library, getting headshots of passersby and printing their answers to questions like: “Does Darien need a movie theater?” or “How will you celebrate Valentine’s Day?” Around Martin Luther King Day, we asked, “How do you think Black people are treated in Darien?”
One man told the reporter that he didn’t like n—–s and moved to Darien so he wouldn’t have to look at them. Furthermore, he changed the channel whenever a n—— came on screen.
Every newsroom is a debate club, and ours went into high gear. Should we publish this racist spleen? The interview did reveal something about the town -– and sugar-coating the truth wasn’t our job. We went back and forth until somebody looked at the town directory. The man was a member of the Representative Town Meeting, the local legislative body. That sealed it. Voters needed to know who was representing them.
Reaction to the piece was angry – angry at us, that is. Nasty phone calls and letters ensued: We were troublemakers. Darien was quite free of racists and to imply otherwise was yellow journalism. We had maliciously misquoted the man. Almost no readers expressed outrage at a town official spewing racism, just at the newspaper for reporting it.
Today I live in East Haddam, which is 95% white, according to the Census. When we had a Black Lives Matter event earlier this summer, Selectman Theresa Govert reflected that: “I’ve been thinking about how this work has to happen in tandem with real action. In tandem with voting, in tandem with showing up and being outraged that we allow Planning and Zoning Boards to keep our towns predominantly white. I’ve been thinking about how we let our hospitals let people of color disproportionately die every day. I’ve been thinking about how our school systems fail Black children because they don’t see themselves reflected in their teachers or their books.”
East Haddam can seem a bucolic paradise, if you ignore the local Facebook groups. Several erupted. How dare she call our planning and zoning commissioners racists! Govert, of course, made no personal aspersions. She spoke of the segregating effect of zoning regulations being a statewide problem. Cooler heads made these points, but … well, Facebook. Facts were beside the point. Govert was a troublemaker. East Haddam is free of racism and to imply otherwise was scandalous.
I should have seen the parallel to the Darien tempest right then. But it didn’t hit me until last week, when she was summoned to appear before an angry East Haddam Planning & Zoning Commission.
Commissioners focused on Govert’s words, or distortions thereof, but refused to honestly address diversity in town. One offered that Black people didn’t live here because “they” don’t like rural areas. Or because they can’t afford it. If Will Smith wanted to buy a house in town, he certainly could. You can see the whole sorry spectacle here. Grown men actually argued that there was no segregation here, because the town would welcome the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Govert even credited the commission for modifying the regulations to allow in-law apartments and some multi-family housing. It was no use. The commissioners clearly saw themselves as the oppressed group. And that oppression would not stand! One commissioner asked Govert her age. Upon hearing the answer (29), he declared: “You don’t know squat!”
I was 22 when I went to work at The Darien News-Review and truly didn’t know squat. I was glad that my newsroom had shone a light into a dark place. I thought that was the necessary precursor to change.
Today I know it’s not enough to reveal the truth. You must also help people not be terrified of it. I’ve never figured out that part. The truth is that local zoning contributes to segregation and was designed to do so. Today’s town officials are not to blame for policies developed before they were born. But they are responsible for how they react to them.
Just as Darien readers were not troubled by an official’s hate speech, not one of my local P&Z commissioners in that protracted discussion expressed any regret that our town lacks diversity or took any responsibility for changing that.
I have loved the deep, dark woods of East Haddam all my life and was delighted when I finally got to live here. I came to love the people too (in real life, that is. On Facebook, we are all stinkers). Now East Haddam seems much more like Darien than I imagined: Insisting it is white, not by design, but by chance. It’s nobody’s fault. Nobody’s responsibility. The only sin that threatens our green and pleasant land is saying otherwise.
That will not be tolerated.
Colleen Shaddox is a writer who lives in East Haddam.