National Conversation About Race Brews In Rural Western Kentucky

Jul 31, 2020
Originally published on July 31, 2020 9:09 am

If you spend any time on social media, you know it can be a war of words out there. Whether it's the debate over wearing masks, the racial unrest sweeping across the U.S. or the impending presidential election — everyone's got an opinion and someone is always ready to give a hot take.

But if you're from a small community, it can be hard to hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. Everyone knows everyone. It's likely that you're fairly connected to the person whose Facebook status you just commented on — maybe you grew up together and remained close with mutual friends, or your parents pass the peace every Sunday at church, or you work with someone in that person's family.

Webster County, Ky., is one of those places. With a population of a little over 13,000, the western Kentucky county is rural, working class, predominantly conservative and mostly white. Generally, race isn't something spoken about openly. I know this because I grew up there.

But as the reckoning over systemic racism envelops the country, some Webster County residents have taken to social media to express their views.

A view of Webster County, Ky., from the back of my grandfather's farm.
Ashley Westerman/NPR

Jason S. Niupulusū, 40, a construction worker, identifies as Samoan American and is part of Webster County's small community of color. Niupulusū posts frequently about his support of the Black Lives Matter movement and is a vocal critic of police brutality. Every day, sometimes many times a day, he posts news stories, thoughts and comments about issues related to systemic racism to his Facebook feed.

Niupulusū's posts attracted the attention of Scott Hobgood. Hobgood, 40, is white and works as a plumber. Niupulusū and Hobgood both grew up in Webster County and were in the same high school graduating class. They've remained acquaintances. Hobgood has pushed back on Niupulusū's Facebook posts, calling into question the motive behind George Floyd's killing, the thought process behind the Black Lives Matter movement and the tearing-down of Confederate monuments.

I'm a Facebook friend with Niupulusū, and a fellow brown person from the county, so the exchanges caught my eye. While people of color from the community do often post on social media when incidents like what happened to Floyd occur, it seemed like this time was different: The conversation has been frequent and sustained.

"I don't support any group that promotes one race over another," Hobgood commented on a post by Niupulusū in late June. "The thought that anyone is owed anything other than individual respect is ludicrous. Nobody is owed anything in life. Especially based solely on their race."

"You don't understand the movement then," Niupulusū replied. "They're not saying they're better than any other race. An til you quit with the all lives matter mindset. You won't ever understand it."

Facebook/Screenshot by NPR

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.

But what would happen if, instead of escalating tension online, the two actually sat down and tried talking to one another face to face on Zoom? Would a real-life discussion simply rehash territory that so often derails Facebook threads — or would it facilitate civility?

When I asked Niupulusū and Hobgood to come out from behind their keyboards to talk frankly about race and navigating those conversions in a small community on Morning Edition, they agreed. They had hopes for what Hobgood called a "good faith" discussion.

In an interview with NPR's David Greene, they argued over race at first, and predictably, the clash revealed the scope of their vast differences. But then, a disclosure about deeply personal history led to a bit of unexpected common ground.

To hear their conversation, press the audio button above.

Lilly Quiroz produced the broadcast version of this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So our nation is in a moment of reckoning over systemic racism. People have taken to the streets in protest. They've also taken the fight online. Social media has been full of tense conversations. On the Internet, you can write what you want and never have to talk to a human, but if you're engaging another person in a small community, it's a lot harder to hide. And that's the case for Scott Hobgood and Jason Niupulusu.

SCOTT HOBGOOD: Yeah. We had several classes together. We graduated together.

JASON NIUPULUSU: Yeah. We had a couple of projects.

HOBGOOD: Yeah. I remember some cheesy projects (laughter).

GREENE: All right. So these two guys grew up in Webster County, Ky. This is a mostly white, mostly conservative working-class community of 13,000 people or so. My colleague Ashley Westerman actually grew up there as well. And she had seen Scott and Jason going back and forth on Facebook about race, something rarely talked about openly there. Ashley wondered, if these guys already know each other in this tight-knit community, maybe they would jump on Zoom with us and keep talking things out. And they said, OK. All right. So Scott is white. He's a plumber. He's an Air Force veteran. He's shared a lot of thoughts online after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

HOBGOOD: It's a tough situation because George Floyd was completely done wrong. 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. You know, to me, from what I've read, there's more evidence out right now that it was a possible personal vendetta between that cop and him as opposed to a racism issue.

GREENE: So I just want to be really clear. I mean, you saw the video and you saw a man's knee on a man's neck, and then we watched him die. I mean, you're saying that the question you had was whether there was racism involved or not.

HOBGOOD: Absolutely. Yeah - well, my question is the motive.

GREENE: All right. So that's Scott. Jason, he is a construction worker who also grew up in Webster County. His dad was Samoan, his mom, white. And he says people have never quite known what to make of him.

NIUPULUSU: People try to figure out what race I am. That's the main one. Are you Mexican? Are you Black? Are you Puerto Rican?

GREENE: And you're - you consider yourself Samoan American, right?

NIUPULUSU: Yes.

GREENE: Jason has also posted a lot since George Floyd's killing. He feels he should stand as an ally with other communities of color.

NIUPULUSU: I mean, pretty much racism has to stop. I've been profiled, not by cops or anything, but some people in general have profiled me and have made slurs and stuff like that. And there's no need for it.

GREENE: So we talked for, like, 40 minutes. And let's listen to some of it. On Facebook, Scott has posted comments about Black Lives Matter, saying he can't support a movement that promotes one group over another. And I asked what he meant.

HOBGOOD: Kind of like Terry Crews said, to promote black lives is one thing but to push it to a point where who says it's enough? Who says, OK, this is what years of pain and suffering of my ancestors is worth? And then what's the statute of limitations on that? Absolutely, Black lives matter, but, you know, all lives matter at the same time and to promote one over another, you can't hold one down to raise another up.

NIUPULUSU: I mean, you're right. You can't. But Black lives have been held down since forever, man.

HOBGOOD: Absolutely. But there is nothing you can do that will make up now for the past that's happened. The only thing we can do is fix our mistakes, you know?

GREENE: Jason, you wrote back on social media and said to Scott you don't understand the movement. What do you think Scott doesn't understand about Black Lives Matter?

NIUPULUSU: 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 the color of your skin, that's the part he doesn't understand. He can empathize with it all he wants to and have compassion for it, but until he experiences it, he won't quite understand. I was trying to make you understand or see our side a little bit better. It's not just our lives matter more than white people lives. No, it's never about that.

HOBGOOD: Absolutely. My biggest issue was I felt like the articles really pushed a you're either with us or against us agenda, I guess you could say. And using that tactic is counterproductive to have a good faith talk because that approach makes people feel a little bit of attacked.

GREENE: Is this a good faith talk? I love that term. Is that what we're having here?

NIUPULUSU: I believe so.

HOBGOOD: I believe so. I mean, that's - that was my hope, that something good would come from this.

GREENE: What is the good that comes out of it? I mean, beyond you guys having different views and being able to sit down together, which I'm not saying is a small thing. I mean, that's really inspiring. But I guess, like, Scott, do you feel like that your views or assumptions about the Black Lives Matter movement have changed at all in listening to Jason?

HOBGOOD: I understand he's experienced life totally different from what I have. So I can't judge him because I haven't lived through his experiences. You know, we all act and react differently to our experiences we lived in life. You know, I lived a little bit of a rough life as a child as well and, you know, he can't speak for my experiences.

GREENE: What - is there something you want to tell us about your life that you faced just so we understand you a little better?

HOBGOOD: I just - I grew up with an alcoholic father that - he liked to get drunk and fight. And my father was actually a convicted pedophile, and he was arrested while I was in high school. And a small community like that, everybody knows everybody. And I was 17 years old, and people don't look too well at a person that's the son of a convicted pedophile.

NIUPULUSU: I didn't know that. I'm sorry. But I do know what it's like to have a hard father that likes to be that way.

GREENE: You said you know what that's like.

NIUPULUSU: Yeah. My dad was an alcoholic, and he used to like to beat me and my mom and sister so...

GREENE: I'm really sorry for both of you guys and that you had to grow up with that.

NIUPULUSU: It happens.

GREENE: Is it hard to have conversations like this in a place where you all know each other so well and everybody knows everybody? I mean, you're in church together. You're having beers after work together. You know each other's families. Does that make it harder?

NIUPULUSU: Some it's easy to have conversations with, some it's not and there are some that just don't care. They don't even want to talk about it. It's like, ignore it, Dave. It'll be all right. But you can't ignore it. You got to have these conversations to grow and understand.

HOBGOOD: Yeah, that's definitely part of growing up in the country (laughter). I was always taught to say what you mean, mean what you say. And if you say it on the Internet, you should probably mean it in person, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "INFINITES")

GREENE: Jason Niupulusu and Scott Hobgood - they're high school classmates from Webster County, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "INFINITES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.