In Pennsylvania’s York County, which borders the Mason-Dixon line, racial tension is nothing new. While some isolated incidents took place around the time of the 2016 election, the area has experienced a long history of problems around race relations. In our two-part series reported by Emily Previti, we’ll hear how one school in the city of York is trying to deal with racial tension; what the area went through during the tumultuous 1960s; and how a hip-hop artist and a local mayor are trying to raise awareness around the issue. Plus we’ll try to understand what’s behind racial tension in York, and explore how the area is unique in some ways - but also reflective of other places. We’ll hear a range of perspectives, including from: a white nationalist group, a retired investigator for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and researchers who’ve looked into York’s civil rights history.
Students are required to enter William Penn High School in the city of York, Pennsylvania through a metal detector. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
Delicia Marshall is noticeably put together for a high school senior.
When you meet her, you notice her straightforward (but respectful) way of talking, steady eye contact and posture. And her makeup. It looks like it might be professionally done – because it almost, sort of, is.
Delicia hasn’t graduated high school yet, but is a certified cosmetologist.
“That’s just my side job, so as I’m going to college, I can do that,” she said. “And if everything else fails, I can use it as a plan B.”
Delicia’s going to York County School of Technology because it’s a better academic option than the public high school in her hometown of York city. The cosmetology credential was a bonus for her, but some students go to York Tech because they want to earn a living wage upon graduating high school.
Delicia, who’s heading to college out of state in the fall, said she’s glad she went to York Tech, and thinks it’s a good school – but far from perfect.
“It always had a reputation for being racist,” she said. “But there’s a lot of African Americans and Hispanics who go to Tech now. So you’re like, ‘Maybe it’s not going to be like that anymore.’ But then you get there and experience it.”
Delicia and some of her classmates say much of it is, if ever-present, somewhat intangible: looks, vibes, etc. But they also agree that this tension, that’s so difficult to describe, was building last year and gave way to more concrete incidents, because of the presidential election.
One incident even made national news, after a video that went viral showed two high school students carrying a Trump sign through the halls of York Tech the day after the election. From the edge of the frame, another student yelled “white power.”
Like many other communities around the time of the 2016 election, racial tension flared in York County.
A school director in Spring Grove came under fire for his tweets and threatening message left on a church voicemail. In nearby West York, a mayor was forced to resign over his bigoted Facebook content.
And one week after the Tech incident, Fred Marsik addressed the York County Advisory Council (YAC), a venue for people to report discrimination, at its monthly public meeting in November.
“I don’t agree with multiculturalism. But I am willing and many white people are willing to get along with black people,” said Marsik. “But don’t tell me you have to deal with white power, because I am white power. So tell me, how you’re going to deal with me?”
Marisk, a retired microbiologist, lives in New Freedom, a borough abutting the Mason-Dixon line and about half an hour from the council’s meeting spot in the city of York.
He said he’d return to the YAC, but hasn’t been back, according to Christina Reese, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Council. The PHRC files any formal complaints that might arise from local testimony provided to advisory councils like the one in York County.
Reached at home, Marsik declined our request for an interview.
Taking all of these incidents into account, how significant is it that all of this happened in York County, given the area’s tense civil rights history? And how is it being addressed?
Students can earn money toward college while they’re still in high school by getting good grades and being accountable for their time outside the classroom through the York YWCA’s Quantum Opportunities program. Program Director Mike Smith says he also mentors students on social issues – including dealing with racial tension. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
A few months after the video incident, I went to York Tech to talk to students about what had happened and the extent to which it really represents the culture at their school.
I sat down with Delicia and a few others during an afterschool session of a college guidance program that meets at William Penn High School, in the city of York.
Freshman Escarleny Conce-Molina said she has been struck by the way some white students behave toward her in school since she started there. It suggests to her they have deeply ingrained racial biases.
“They think they’re better than everyone else,” she said. “You can feel it because they just really want to separate you from everything that they do.”
Asked what these students do, in particular, that makes her feel this way, she said:
“The looks they give you. … It’s like they hate you and disrespect. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Escarleny, Delicia and their classmates Liz Herrera-Reynoso and Alexis Elliott also insisted some white students sport Confederate flags on a regular basis on belt loops, tiny decals on their boots and other ways that aren’t so obvious.
The girls grew up in the city of York, but go to a school just outside that draws from 900 square miles of surrounding county - in parts of which, it’s not uncommon to see Confederate flags on license plates, painted on trucks, or flying from someone’s house.
“It’s a good life lesson,” said Liz, a freshman. “I didn’t think racism was still a thing.”
Although it’s impossible to know the intent in every case, the girls see the flags as symbols of racism (rather other interpretations sometimes claimed such as rebellion).
Alexis, a senior studying culinary arts at Tech and heading to Millersville University in the fall, saw things differently.
“I’m black and white. So, Tech, I mean, it was one of the severe situations, but it wasn’t really new to me because growing up there was problems. I went to city schools and there was still problems,” she said. “It’s just how some people are. Maybe it has to do with how they were raised or what goes on in their house... But if you don’t pay it no mind, or at least show them that it doesn’t hurt you as much, they’ll leave you alone. They don’t just pick at you.”
York County’s population is 86 percent white, according to the state Department of Education.
And while Tech’s student body is predominantly white, 65 percent, it’s much more diverse by comparison.
It’s also the third-largest of 23 high schools in the County, with more than 1,600 students. For those coming from the furthest corners of the county, the ride to school takes over an hour.
Some students choose Tech so they can jump right into the workforce after graduating. The school has a bunch of programs in construction, the auto industry, the medical field - just to name a few.
Others want a better academic option than their public high school.
Mike Smith, who runs the local YWCA’s Quantum Opportunities Program where we talked to the girls, counsels participating students’ families on where to send their kids to high school.
The program lets students earn money toward college by getting good grades and being accountable for their time outside the classroom.
It also provides SAT prep, college tours and other support for overcoming the obstacles kids often face in a city like York.
More than a third of residents live below the federal poverty line.
The city’s violent crime rate ranked eighth of 230 Pennsylvania localities reporting to the FBI in 2014.
And at William Penn, the police department has a full substation that’s highly visible on a heavily traveled second-floor hallway.
“These kids know more people who were sent to jail than college. That shouldn’t be,” said Smith, 49. “All I want them to do is have options. When you have options, then you can figure out what you want to do.”
Over the past decade, Smith has worked with nearly 200 teenagers and all of them have gone to college.
Smith, who grew up in York, said success goes beyond the college acceptance letters covering a bulletin board in the classroom hosting the program. He said much of his job entails mentoring students about “anything you can imagine” – including how to deal with racial tension.
“At [their] age, I wish I knew what I know now,” he said. “What I do is, take what I know as a 49-year-old man – coming up, being a minority, all my experiences – and I give it to them. So that when they face it… they’ll have the equipment to be able to make the right decisions.”
Since the white power incident at Tech, Smith said parents are more hesitant about their kids going to the school.
“I’m trying to sell the education piece, regardless of that,” he said. “Even when you go to college you’re not going to be able to control, how people act.”
Delicia agrees. She is glad she went to Tech.
“I learned a lot of things not only about myself but about school and about how I can further my education,” she said. “But if you don’t know how to deal with (the racial tension), it could break you.”
Delicia and the other girls agree that during the past year, racial tension grew stronger.
“It seemed like people felt they could say anything, even the N-word,” Delicia said.
They attributed the shift to the presidential election.
“As he was running, they were already saying, ‘I hope Trump builds a wall,’ to me, implying I’m Mexican, which I’m not,” said Liz, whose family is from the Dominican Republic.
Delicia said that “as soon as [Trump] won, we all knew the next day people were going to act up. And as soon as we went to school, it really was a problem.”
She recalled the line of students, some with their parents at their side, who wanted “to go home because they didn’t feel safe.”
“It seemed like half the school went home,” Liz said, adding some kids stayed out for multiple days.
Students protested outside York Tech in response, joined by peers from nearby high schools. Some students also staged a walkout, sitting in the hall and refusing to go back to class.
Scott Rogers, Tech’s assistant administrative director (the equivalent of a vice-principal), said he was not in the building that morning because he was at crisis training off-site.
Tech already had a crisis plan in place, though, Rogers said, and it was activated. That day, school officials arranged for more counselors to be on-site, briefed the teachers, sent letters home and made phone calls to communicate to parents. Rogers said, “how we don’t condone what happened. And that is not our school and how we’re moving forward and what the steps are.”
But Joann Prettyman, a teacher there for over 20 years, is adamant that the media’s treatment of the video exacerbated the issue. It revived, she said, an incident that was “dying.”
“It was normal day,” she recalled, months later.
Prettyman said she saw two boys walking through the halls with a Trump sign and confiscated it.
She had no idea a video had already been taken and would soon be online - or what a bystander said just off-camera. But the four-second clip didn’t bother her as much as the media’s treatment of it, she said.
“I feel like students were serving an agenda for someone else,” Prettyman said.
Prettyman’s former student Jennifer Smith, now a history teacher at Tech herself, put it this way:
“Any building, school building, any place of employment - if they want to say they don’t have conflict, they’re fooling themselves,” Smith said. “It’s human nature to have a certain level of conflict.”
Both teachers grew up in York County. And they said candid conversations about race are nothing new at York Tech.
It’s not like we had “a lackadaisical, non-empathetic student body that wanted to do nothing, but then Donald Trump became president and two students carried a sign and someone said a racial slur, and now we do things,” Prettyman said. “No. That’s false. That’s absolutely false.”
Prettyman is correct: the school did have programs in place, such as Project Harmony, meant to promote unity and inclusion.
But after the white power incident, York Tech officials felt compelled to take action.
In addition to the immediate steps Rogers outlined, Tech administrators engaged with law enforcement, state education officials and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Council (PHRC). They implemented the FBI’s Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together (SPIRIT) program.
It’s designed to help local school or government officials deal with racial tension in their community.
The PHRC says York Tech wasn’t alone in reaching out for support in response to bias incidents, but one of nearly a dozen schools in Pennsylvania in 2016. In a typical year, there are between eight and 10 such requests, according to Harrisburg-based Center for Safe Schools.
Tech also filled the diversity coordinator position that had been vacant for years.
When artist-turned-activist Carla Christopher learned Tech was looking for a diversity coordinator, she was balancing multiple roles: performer/poet (including a stint as the city of York’s poet laureate), minister-in-training, community organizer, and advocate.
Since taking the job, she has been cultivating an understanding of defenses, doubts, triggers, aspirations, education gaps, etc.
The many considerations are critical because it all affects responses; specifically, how much community buy-in to new initiatives, Christopher said.
“So if there are things that happened before, I need to know: What worked. What didn’t work? Why didn’t it work? If it worked at first, but then it fell apart, why did it fall apart? Was it that people got complacent because it was working? Is it that certain things were just too hard? Is it that we were talking to the wrong people? Involving the wrong people in the solutions? That’s everything about what I’m trying to do right now,” she said. “Figure out what the missing pieces are.”
About two months into the job, Christopher could predict with nearly perfect accuracy which teachers would respond to her emails.
“Am I prepared for some teachers I don’t hear back from, there’s more to their reticence? Sure, that’s possible. It’s even likely,” she said. “It could be outright racism. It could be defensiveness … [or that] they don’t always appreciate some idealized rookie that wants to come in and tear apart what they’ve been figuring out how to make work for 20 years. I get that.”
“So I’m trying to let teachers know that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to help. I’m here to provide opportunity and resources, and to support students – and teachers – in the kind of changes they’re willing to carry out and make.”
And she has already made a lot of changes.
Christopher has created guidelines to help teachers file complaints about harassment, for example, and worked with students to put on a diversity showcase.
And she has introduced an evidence-based approach for how the school now plans to respond to a bias incident. As before, students face suspensions for bias crimes, verbally or physically assaultive behavior, but also will have assignments geared toward teaching empathy.
And upon return to school, they now must meet with Christopher or a school counselor for a processing session to discuss the damage they have done in that incident specifically and general concepts of empathy; and if warranted, nonviolent communication.
Christopher has lived in York for 10 years, but says she has to go back decades - at least – for a full understanding of the issues she’s dealing with today. The last time I visited her, she was in her office at York Tech, going through a stack of papers documenting York’s history of racial tension.
“It’s not just the last few years, the last few incidents that are affecting what we’re doing,” she said.
A rebel flag is prominently displayed in a truck bed parked in a strip mall in York, Pennsylvania. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
If you really want to understand York’s history, you have to go back more than 200 years.
Jim Kalish, who wrote a 250-year interpretative history on diversity in York, made this point about who settled in the area after the Civil War.
“A number of the leaders came in from the south back in the 1870s, 1880s, post-Civil War, up the Susquehanna Valley and then they moved up there and they became the establishment and remained,” Kalish said.
In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan began its well-documented history of activity in York County. The organization has grown and receded in the area in parallel to national waves over the years.
But to understand York’s complex history around race relations, the 60s are critical.
There were hundreds of race riots in the U.S. in the 60s, most of them in small or mid-size cities like York, according to York College Professor Peter Levy.
“York … had a fairly severe race revolt which is virtually unknown, and even the city ignored it, insofar as you literally had black on white fire shooting, back and forth. Not only are two people killed. There’s over 20 people who are shot at some point. It’s almost remarkable no more people were killed,” said Levy, who has studied the area’s civil rights history.
But what came before the riots is significant, too.
There was tension building for years.
The police started using K9s in 1962, and most of the patrols were in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Black residents demanded a police review board, and protested over major issues like substandard housing and limited job opportunities.
They had the support of City Council and a local newspaper, but the mayor at the time would not meet with the community.
Ultimately, their concerns were ignored for all practical purposes.
Jeff Kirkland is a local historian who recently founded the Historical African American Preservation Society in the city of York, Pennsylvania. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
Jeff Kirkland, now 67, came of age during that time.
He lives today in downtown York, in a neighborhood that used to be all white when he was growing up.
When I got there, he was working on a photo restoration project in his office and listening to jazz.
Kirkland turned off the music before we started talking.
“I am reflecting back on a friend of mine who just passed today,” he said. “His name was Steve Smallwood.”
Kirkland worked at the Children’s Home of York for part of the time when he was in college. The facility was founded as an orphanage, but by then was also housing young men who had disciplinary issues such as truancy.
Smallwood was a resident of the Children’s Home and just 13 years old when he was abducted at gunpoint by a group of white teenagers in May 1967, while walking back from visiting his parents less than a mile away.
Kirkland said he arrived at the home for an overnight shift, only to learn that Smallwood was at the hospital.
He did not find out the details until his supervisors returned.
“Some white guys pulled up in a car, pulled a gun on him, took him out in the country, beat him up real bad.” Smallwood recalled. “They flushed his head in the toilet, took a razor and scalped them. Then they tied him up and put him in a bag a trash bag and threw him out on the highway. Some man was riding past and saw the bag moving and thought it might have been a dog or something in it. And when he opened it up it was (Steve), and he rushed him to the hospital and luckily saved his life.”
It was a turning point, an escalation from the racial tension that had existed before in the community.
Before, there were fights, he said, and “some of them may have racial overtones. But that type of thing didn’t invade our community often.”
The random violence of the act, and the extremely young age of the victim, were something else entirely, he said.
After that, Kirkland and some of the others he worked with at the Children’s Home took extra measures to protect themselves, keeping guns under their beds. “I had two shotguns and a rifle,” said Kirkland.
At this point in our conversation, Kirkland walked me over to a framed collage of newspaper clippings he has collected over the years about York’s Black Experience: student walkouts, Klan rallies, and violence.
“The story there,” Kirkland said, pointing to a headline. “My friend’s father Carl Williams was picked up by the police, picked him up over on Penn Street. He was drunk … tried to make a clown out of him, beating him with clubs, and ended up killing him. And they lied about it and said they didn’t know anything about it. But so many people saw him. They were prosecuted, and they were let off. Suspended.”
“It’s just so many things you know?”
Kirkland pointed to another story: “This is where my brother Eric was shot.”
A group of black teenagers had gathered on a summer night at the same intersection as a market with an apartment above. The tenant, Chester Roach, ended up firing at the crowd, hitting 11 people.
Nobody died. And everyone was even able to run away and take cover as the shooter, Chester Roach, came out onto the street.
“This guy, William ‘Mutt’ Orr, snuck up in back of him and knocked the gun out of [Roach’s] hand and everybody went on him, almost killed him,” Kirkland recalled. “By this time, the police had come with the armor car to get him out of there.”
But later, people came back to retaliate, throwing firebombs at the market below Roach’s apartment.
Three month later, Orr was killed after being shot through his front window while eating breakfast not long before he was scheduled to testify against Roach.
Roach was ultimately acquitted for lack of evidence.
And then, “things just escalated,” Kirkland said.
By the end of the 60s, tensions had flared so much in the city that riots eventually broke out there in July of 1969.
Over the course of week-long rioting, 20 people were injured.
A white rookie police officer named Henry Schaad was shot, and died two weeks later. In a park, a white power rally was held. A day after the rally, a group of white men shot dead Lillie Belle Allen, a black woman from South Carolina who was visiting family in York.
The atmosphere in the city was tense, as Kirkland remembers.
“We had to stay in the house mainly. I remember peeping out the window after the National Guard got there,” he said. “I didn’t carry a weapon with me. I was sort of like a spectator most of the time. It was a little bit scary.”
It wasn’t until decades later, after local newspapers published a series of stories marking the 30th anniversary of the Riots, that an investigation was opened into the shooting deaths of a white police officer and a young black woman from South Carolina who was in York to visit her family.
Former York Mayor Charlie Robertson acknowledged that he made a call for white power during the riots, when he was a 35-year-old police officer.
More than a dozen people were charged in connection with the case in 2001 - including Robertson.
He won the Democratic primary. But the next day, he was charged by District Attorney Tom Kelley, also a Republican city councilman, and he ended up dropping out of the race.
Robertson was ultimately acquitted, after over a year of international media coverage.
Ever since, he has kept a low profile living in the house where he grew up in the city of York. Now 83, Robertson declined our interview request, saying he is focused on battling cancer.
The trial’s often blamed for stoking racial tensions that had long since subsided, but several indicators suggest it’s more complicated than that.
Levy recalled a student had a tough time getting people to talk about the riots for oral histories she tried to collect in the 1990s, before the trial was was even a thought.
“She couldn’t even use people’s names at that point in time,” he said. “So that suggests race relations were still pretty raw. The community didn’t want to talk about the fact it had this revolt in part because. I think they fear that talking will lead to another one and that’s an issue. Rather than, let’s talk about it because still are problems and let’s grapple with the problems.”
The area also saw more organized hate group activity during the 1990s, according to Van Dyke and Kalish’s book, which corresponds with what was happening nationally at the time.
The Anti-Defamation League’s data shows a peak during the 1990s, with a record high number of incidents in 1994, according to Jeremy Bannett, assistant regional director at the organization’s regional office.
While ADL data deals with anti-Semitic incidents, specifically, they tend to trend with bias incidents, generally, Bannett said.
White nationalist groups latched onto Roberton’s trial as a recruiting tool, Levy, the York College Professor, said.
Keystone United, then known as Keystone State Skinheads, ties its launch and wider recognition to a 2001 demonstration provoked by the race riots trials in the city of York.
Founded in Harrisburg, the organization remains one of the largest active in Pennsylvania, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The group changed its name to avoid the association with violent groups that “go after nonwhites for no reason whatsoever,” said spokesman Steve Smith.
“That’s just wrong and not what we’re about,” he said.
The name change also came after multiple members were charged with violent hate crimes, including Smith himself.
He did two months in prison for his involvement in a hate crime involving other KSS members against a black man in Scranton in 2003.
Smith has been adamant he was a bystander, that there wasn’t physical harm to the victim and that he pleaded guilty to simple assault (rather than terrorist threats) to avoid harsher penalties and a greater expense.
Smith said Keystone United, which he joined 15 years ago at age 30, is less extreme than other groups he’s previously been affiliated with, including the Aryan Nations, NWAP and KKK, which he joined at 19 years old.
“I was young and angry. I knew what was happening to my area: high levels of nonwhite crime, violent crime,” he said.
Asked about racial tension, Smith cited similar underlying causes for current problems in his community of Pittston, Luzerne County, more than 25 years later.
Smith is originally from Chester County, but moved to Northeastern Pennsylvania in 2006 when the area was undergoing major demographic shifts that continue today.
He said people associate the increasing diversification with an increase in violent crime, pointing to a spike in violence the city of Hazleton during 2000-2014.
In Wilkes-Barre, the county’s largest city, the increase in violent incidents in the county was more dramatic in the 1990s, more than 70 percent, then all but leveled out over the course of the following decade, when the area’s minority populations really surged. The pattern is similar in Hanover Township and the city of Kingston, according to a Keystone Crossroads analysis of FBI Uniform Crime Reports and U.S. Census statistics.
In Nanticoke, trends were similar to Hazleton, but the violent crime rate there has been down since 2010.
The area also has been struggling economically for decades. Over the past several years, the region’s recovery from the recession has been relatively slow, according to a Keystone Crossroads analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau and Labor Statistics.
Smith said he does not know what else might be at play, but that the nature of racial tension complicates finding solutions to what he sees as associated problems.
“People are afraid to speak publicly about these issues. That’s what’s probably causing this racial tension more so than just violent crime: the fact that people can’t openly speak about it without being labeled,” he said. “They don’t want to speak out about it because of the stigma. If you’re white and you speak out on behalf of your people, you are labeled these term buzzwords like racist and white supremacist.”
Smith is in his second term as a committeeman in the Luzerne County Republican Party. Fellow Keystone United member Ryan Wojtowicz is in his first term in the same role in a different district.
Smith said he is not aware of anyone else in elected office in Pennsylvania, currently, who shares their agenda, openly or not; and did not have specifics on plans to achieve the group’s goal of electing more people who are pro-white.
He also would not say how many people belong to Keystone United, other than membership is at its peak.
Smith says Luzerne County has a relatively high concentration of members, along with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. But he says the group’s stronghold is in Central Pennsylvania, which includes the cities of Harrisburg, Lancaster and York.
“There’s no way to know … how many people are really involved,” said retired PHRC investigator Ann Van Dyke. “But … it doesn’t really matter so much how many card-carrying members there are. What matters is how many people they influence.”
Data limitations are real. The FBI deals with hate crimes separately from others in its Uniform Crime Reports. Law enforcement also can’t qualify for JAG money, a major funding source, unless they participate in the UCR. They don’t have the same financial incentive for relaying hate crime data and reporting rates are lower.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a frequently cited source, but the Center relies on news reports – making the information more a measure of coverage of bias incidents rather than a comprehensive look at how often they occur, as this Quartz blog points out.
The ADL’s tracking method is more systematic than the SPLC. It also dates back to 1979, versus the SPLC’s 2003 start date. But when data is parsed to the local level, numbers are often too small to get a reliable read on patterns or significance, Bannett said.
This dearth of data recently prompted the Documenting Hate partnership committed to counting and corroborating bias incidents, including those generated on social media, among 60 news and advocacy organizations, including the SPLC, ADL, ProPublica, Reveal, PBS and The New York Times as well as multiple local and regional news outlets.
Carla Christopher, left, speaks with York Tech’s assistant director of administration Scott Rogers, right. Ms. Christopher, who’s a poet among many other things, is the high school’s diversity coordinator. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
To get more perspective on underlying issues in York, I interviewed Van Dyke
“In my work, I did see a high number of hate incidents by both everyday people and organized hate groups,” she said. “But you have to keep in mind that York County also has a strong civil rights community.”
Groups are vocal in responding to bias incidents, Van Dyke said. She described the mentality as something like: “We’re not having it. We’re going to talk about it. We’re going to report on it. We’re going to deal with it publicly.”
But the public knowledge and openness might skew perceptions of the area, she said.
“York County for decades has had a high number of civil rights group diligent about monitoring, naming, educating,” Van Dyke said. “In other counties, there might have been just as many hate incidents, but they kept it quiet. The truth is, there’s no way of knowing.”
Carla Christopher, York Tech’s diversity coordinator, also noted geography.
“We get a lot of political attention because of the whole Pennsylvania swing state type of thing. We are kind of the metaphor for working class America that politicians and media really looks to,” she said. “The same incident happening here has 10 times the impact that it would in Chicago or Detroit. But it also gets out because of our proximity to major media outlets. We’re this little perfect storm right in the middle.”
That being said, there are conditions underlying racial tension and that could trigger bias incidents or create the environment where organized hate groups can take hold in York and anywhere else.
One is the fear of a changing population, Van Dyke said.
York County’s population growth had been driven by an increase in white residents as documented by every Census, decades after minority population increases were driving overall growth in the rest of the country (1970) and state overall (1980)*, according to a Keystone Crossroads analysis.
That changed for York in 2010, the first Census to show minority population growth outpacing whites in the area, the analysis showed.
“York County’s been geographically mostly rural and white and Christian with this small hub in the city of people of color,” Van Dyke said. “And not only is the proportion of people of color in the city [growing], but also you see the county in general becoming more diverse in rural areas where it’s never been diverse.”
York is by no means the only Pennsylvania county where demographic diversification is happening relatively late.
Another issue at play in York, Van Dyke said, is the economy.
The most recent numbers from the U.S. Census show whites are faring worse economically in York County than minorities there, and than other whites in the state and the nation overall.
Although average household incomes and housing costs -- relative to the cost of living-- were still higher for whites than minorities in York, these indicators improved for minorities or dropped by small margins relative to whites’ more significant backslides.
While these larger economic forces might not be in the direct control of local leaders, Van Dyke said their response is critical.
“Whoever speaks loudest gets to define the spear of the community. And a hate incident that’s met with silence? Silence is the welcome mat for hate,” Van Dyke said.
York-based hip-hop artist Nakuu produced a song called, “Brothers,” as a way to get people talking about racial tension. (Jessica Kourkounis for Keystone Crossroads)
There was a swift and widespread response to a bias incident that drew international media attention to York last October.
Former West York Mayor Charles Wasko was pressured to resign after posting offensive photos of President Barack Obama and his family on Facebook.
Shawn Mauck was Borough Council President at the time.
“The York Dispatch called and said we have a breaking story, can you take a look at something?” Mauck said. “First I was taken aback to the point it made me sick. I was thinking, this is a guy I have to work with…but I never thought I’d see what I saw on his Facebook page.”
As the story was covered internationally, Wasko remained unapologetic and resisted demands for his resignation coming from all levels, including one from the governor.
“We very early on said, ‘Look you know you need to apologize; you need to make this right.’ Of course, he did not. He did the on-camera [with a TV station], saying ‘Yeah, I said that. I posted that. I feel that way, and I am OK with that’,” Mauck said. “I think that doubling down and tripling down on his hatred… made it difficult for him even moreso.”
Wasko, a retired county jail officer who became mayor by winning an unopposed election in 2013, has been inconsistently selective about which reporters he talks to, post-scandal. He did not respond to my requests for comments.
Eventually, he resigned. Borough council appointed Mauck to finish out Wasko’s term, and Mauck has since won the Democratic nomination for a full four years.
“My predecessor, I don’t think he realizes the damage he did to our community and the perception it gave,” he said “But families here are suffering from systemic racism and the hurt that it causes. There are still families afraid to talk about their experience because they’re afraid of the retribution it brings. And that’s not OK. We need to stay focused on the topic until no one has to feel afraid anymore and certainly that no one has to feel like they have to move.”
The Wasko incident seems like it’s pushed community leaders to confront racial tension in West York:
Police have shifted their focus to neighborhood foot patrols and are developing relationships with residents.
Borough officials are also updating nondiscrimination ordinances, and even considering decriminalizing marijuana.
Mauck says the Human Relations Commission now being in West York could be an opportunity for residents to file complaints about discrimination and use other council services.
He also said he views all of this as progress. But it’s made him and his family a target.
“I’ve been called some pretty interesting names,” Mauck said. “My children had been targeted because they have a little darker tone to their skin. The N-word has been used in reference to them.”
And not too long ago at a Borough Council meeting, Mauck retold a story from a black constituent whose child was called a racial slur by another adult. Mauck said the whole word out loud. And he was criticized for it, but the controversy was relatively brief.
“I regret that anybody had any visceral pain from what I was putting forward from someone else. But I don’t regret the fact that I’m shining a light on the very ugly dark problem we have,” he said. “I realize that’s going to invoke a lot of emotion across the spectrum. But until we call it for what it is, to point out how ugly and hurtful it is, I don’t believe we’re going to change it.”
Mauck has also taken time to encourage 19-year-old local hip-hop artist Nakuu, whose song “Brothers” has amassed millions of views on YouTube and listens on iTunes and Spotify since dropping last winter.
“He understands what a divisive, powerful situation he’s talking about. He found a way to get through to people,” Mauck said.
He found out about Nakuu the same way I did: through a York Dispatch story about the song going viral. Mauck says after reading the article and checking out the song, he sent Nakuu a message on social media.
Eventually, the two met at Mauck’s office in borough hall - with no fanfare. Nakuu is the one who told me about the meeting.
“He thanked me for doing that because he said we need more of that,” said Nakuu, whose off-stage name is Terrell Bryant. “In our community, we need more people like that. We need more people to spread the word. He’s trying to do the same thing. I believe he’s really going to make a change. ”
Nakuu has lived in York city all his life. He works out of a home studio or professional one downtown, where I met him to talk, a month after “Brothers” was released.
So what planted the seed?
Nakuu told me that on a winter afternoon about a year ago, he was out on the street shoveling snow, when a cop drove by and yelled a racial slur at him.
“Not every cop is like that, but it’s going to happen. Because this is life. This is the world we live in. History is history. Sometimes history won’t go away,” he said.
Nakuu said between the incident with the cop, the election and related bias incidents he saw in the national news and locally, he was inspired to produce “Brothers.” He wrote it with another hip-hop artist named Young Verse, a white ex-Marine living in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“You can’t solve everything with speech, but you can give a try,” Nakuu said. “A voice is real powerful. Especially if you can get people to listen.”
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Azavea for data assistance.
This story was updated to add detail about crime patterns in Luzerne County communities.
*The 1980 Census was the first documenting Pennsylvania’s population growth was driven by minorities, instead of whites. This is true regardless of whether we included Philadelphia, which can skew results because the city’s home to more than 10 percent of the state population.