Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Two rural classmates, a white conservative and a liberal of color, find common ground in NPR dialogue on race

Scott Hobgood and Jason Niupulusū (photos submitted to NPR)
After NPR invited two rural men from a Kentucky town—one pro-Black Lives Matter and one against—for a dialogue on race on "Morning Edition" with David Greene, the men discovered an unexpected bit of common ground, reports Ashley Westerman, a native of their county.

Westerman is from Webster County in Western Kentucky. She noticed that a local acquaintance, Jason Niupulusū, posted frequently on Facebook in support of BLM and criticizing racism and police brutality. Niupulusū, 40, is a construction worker who is part Samoan.

Westerman also noticed that another local man, 40-year-old Scott Hobgood, a white plumber, frequently pushed back on Niupulusū's posts. "As their Facebook exchanges have unfolded, it has become clear that the reckoning on racial justice taking place in big cities is also happening in smaller, more rural towns and communities like Webster County — a quiet place that prides itself on being friendly, helpful and welcoming," Westerman reports.

Intrigued by their ongoing dialogue, Westerman invited the two—who graduated high school together—to discuss the issue on the air, via a Zoom conversation with Greene.

"It's a tough situation because George Floyd was completely done wrong, "Hobgood said. "There's no way a man should be treated like that. But at the same time, I felt like the media and the public's reaction was a very knee-jerk response." Hobgood said he's seen evidence of a personal vendetta between Floyd and the officer who killed him, and doesn't think race was a factor.

Niupulusū said he's often identified as Mexican or Black, has been called racist names and has been racially profiled, though not by police, and is acutely aware of racism's impact in everyday life.

Webster County, Kentucky (Wikipedia)
Hobgood said he believes that Black lives matter, but that he can't support a group that promotes any race over another, because he believes all lives should matter. Niupulusū responded that Black people have been "held down" in the past and that that needs correcting. Hobgood agreed, but said there's nothing people today can do to fix the past: "The only thing we can do now is fix our mistakes."

Greene noted that Niupulusū had written on Facebook that Hobgood doesn't understand about the BLM movement, and asked him what he meant. "He understands some, but to actually be a person of color, to actually be called racial slurs or have something done wrong to you because of the color of your skin...that's the part he doesn't understand," Niupulusū said. "He can empathize all he wants to and have compassion for it, but until he experiences it, he won't quite understand." BLM has never been about Black lives mattering more than white lives, he said.

Hobgood said he felt as if news articles about the protests pushed a "with us or against us" agenda. "Using that tactic is counterproductive to have a good-faith talk because that approach makes people feel a little bit of attacked," Hobgood said.

Greene asked them both if their discussion that day had changed their minds or given them new understanding of the issue. Hobgood said: "I understand that he's experienced life totally differently from what I have. So I can't judge him because I haven't lived through his experiences. We all act and react differently to our experiences we've lived in life." Hobgood said he had had a rough childhood dealing with a violent, alcoholic father who was a convicted pedophile, and that Niupulusū could not understand that, for example, having not shared that experience. Then Niupulusū said he could sympathize with part of Hobgood's experience, since his father was also a violent alcoholic.

When Greene asked how difficult it was to have these sorts of conversations face-to-face in small towns, Niupulusū and Hobgood agreed that it could be difficult to make waves sometimes. Niupulusū said many people seemed not to care and wanted to ignore such issues. "But you can't ignore it," he said. "You gotta have these conversations to grow and understand."

Hobgood agreed: "Yeah, that's definitely part of growing up in the country. I was always taught to say what you mean and mean what you say. And if you say it on the internet, you should probably mean it in person too."

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