Inside Daddypops Tumble Inn Diner in Claremont, the owner’s daughter – Fallon Carter – is working behind the counter as she talks with her mom and a friend.
They’re discussing a recent incident in town that’s been all over the news. The family of a young biracial boy says local teenagers intentionally hanged their son in a lynching-style attack. He survived, but had to be airlifted to the hospital.
Carter says she doesn’t know what the teens’ motivation was, but it was probably just bullying – she knows that’s a problem in town.
“He just so happened to be of a different origin,” she says of the young boy. The racial aspect has been overblown, she says – “we’re all Americans here. We’re all from a different area of the world.”
The city is more than 95 percent white. Race, the diner’s owner Deborah Kirby says, is really not an issue here.
"There are people that are like so-called skinheads, supremacists, whatever,” she admits. “And you’ll see swastika tattoos and stuff.” But, she says, “I don’t even see them really bothering anybody.”
According to the parents of a teenager involved in the incident, the whole thing was an accident. They recently told Newsweek that the kids were playing with a rope and climbing trees when things went tragically wrong. It was not the attempted-lynching that some are making it out to be, they said.
At the city level, both the city manager and mayor have denounced racism, but have also pointed to broader anti-violence initiatives as the way forward. They’ve avoided focusing solely on race.
To many, that response misses the point.
“The idea that an act like putting a noose around someone’s neck could be called, ‘oh they were just kidding around, this is bullying’ – that’s not bullying,” said Rachel Edens, who lives about 25 miles up the road from Claremont. She’s an assistant dean at Dartmouth College, where she advises black, first generation and low-income students.
She also does independent training and facilitation work on diversity and inclusivity.
Edens is originally from the south and said, moving to this area, she was stunned at the level of racism she encountered. At one point, there were three confederate flags visible just on the street where she lives.
“There’s definitely a feeling of not being welcomed, of being in danger, of always wondering when something is going to happen,” she said.
The idea that racism doesn’t exist in this area because there are so few people of color is one that Olivia Lapierre, a racial and environmental justice organizer in the Upper Valley, has heard often. It’s incredibly misguided, she said.
“First, you’re denying the existence of people of color who do live here, and their experiences and their oppression,” Lapierre said. “But in addition, you’re saying that racism only exists where black people exist – that we are the problem, and we bring the problems with us.”
In her experience, even those who react strongly to single incidents, like this one in Claremont, often don’t stick around to make lasting change over the long-term. She spoke at a vigil after the incident hit the news. About 100 people attended. A smaller group – about half that size – met again last week in a church meeting room downtown.
Attendees were mostly white, several came in from out of town. Amy Cousins drove about an hour to be there with two of her children. She is white and her husband is black.
“I grew up in these small towns. I feel happy and comfortable in these small towns,” she said. “There are incidents that come at us – smaller – but there’s that feel of bigger.”
She’s noticed that her kids have gotten more comments about their race as they’ve gotten older. Many of these comments are intended as jokes, she said, but she’s taught them “when push comes to shove, people who they think might be on their side will not necessarily be on their side.”
As part of the discussion, attendees talked about times when they’d personally witnessed an act of discrimination, and what they did about it. Racial justice advocates say this – learning to intervene and have hard conversations day-to-day – is one area where people can really help.
As the meeting wrapped up, its organizer said she’ll plan another gathering next month. Bring a friend, she said. For a city of 13,000, they could use a few more people to really make a difference.