LEBANON, Ind. (Indianapolis Star) -- I knew I was in the right place when I spotted the empty noose hanging from a gallows on the front lawn.
Inside the tiny turquoise house in Lebanon, I knew I'd find Eric Smith, the white guy with biracial kids who thought it was a good idea to hang an effigy of President Barack Obama from that noose for Halloween.
It was Thursday, the first day of November and the Halloween decorations were still up. I climbed out of my car, sized up the menacing-looking rope, and went to the door. Eric, an affable, blonde 30-year-old, opened it and I looked down at his shirt. "I'm not a bigot," it shouted in all capital letters. "I'm the first one to say it isn't your fault you're black."
I took a deep breath, willed away any judgmental thoughts and reminded myself why I drove all the way there in the first place.
Eric didn't know it, but I was looking for hope. Or maybe proof that people are more complicated in their views than 140-character tweets, Facebook memes and headlines give them credit for. I was looking for gray in an increasingly politicized world of black and white.
As we head into Election Day, signs abound that Americans are more divided than ever. A recent poll by the Associated Press found that more Americans have negative feelings toward blacks today than before Obama was elected. Anti-Hispanic sentiments aren't much better. And now, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in New York has highlighted the stark divisions between rich and poor when it comes to getting help.
Those things that divide us also have taken over our political discourse to our detriment.
Many Americans are in silos -- ready to assume and react, not question and learn. So, when you read about a guy in small-town Indiana who decides to put up an effigy of Obama on his front lawn, it's easy to think the worst.
I did. My first thought was: "Oh, great. Another racist idiot making headlines."
But then I read that Eric's longtime partner, Heather Wahls, is black and that they have three biracial children. I also read that he's a veteran who served in Iraq and that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on his behalf because he was told he needed a permit to protest on Monument Circle. I thought: "Maybe this guy isn't who he seems to be."
He isn't. Eric is a complicated character.
Born in Noblesville, he and his four siblings were raised by a single mother who worked full time and went to school full time. His family ended up in Lebanon, where he met Heather at age 15. After high school, he used student loans to study law enforcement and then joined the Indiana National Guard. He was injured, however, and had to return to school to choose a new career, which, of all things, was social work.
Eric is a patriot to the core. He has, for example, taught his 10-year-old son to show respect by not moving or talking whenever the National Anthem is playing. He's a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and believes in entrepreneurship, not "penalizing the rich" with higher taxes.
But don't think he's a blind Mitt Romney supporter. "He just seems like a snake."
What's more, he acknowledges that Obama has done some good things. He dismisses the idea that the president is responsible for the country's economic mess, or the uptick in the number of people on public assistance.
"Sure, there's going to be more people on welfare because the economy tanked," Eric said. "It has nothing to do with Obama being like: 'Come on. Line up for food stamps.'"
Most of Eric's qualms with Obama have to do with foreign policy -- and that's why he put up the effigy. At first was tied on a fence closer to his family's house. He says he used the rope only to make sure it wouldn't blow away.
Then came the attention from passers-by. People started to throw objects at his house and call him a racist. Then the reporters arrived. Eric says he was shocked and so was Heather.
"We're not the kind of people who dwell on things," he said. "We don't dwell on whether racism still exists, so it wasn't a black and white thing to her. She knows I'm an attention-getter."
It was when Eric decided to push the envelope further that things got worse. Instead of taking the effigy off the fence, he hung it from a noose.
"You want to call me racist and you don't even know me? I'm going to show you. I'll make it real bad," he said to describe his thinking at the time.
Now, if all of this seems childish to you, I'd have to agree. Even Eric would agree. But that, he says, is his point: The fact that Americans are still divided over race is childish and unnecessary.
"I wasn't brought up that way, so I don't bring my kids up that way," Eric said. "We don't teach them that. We don't teach them that noose equals lynchings, that rainbows equal gay."
Now do I, as a black woman, think this is an oversimplification? Yes. I know racism still exists, and I don't think it helps to pretend it doesn't.
But, I also see where Eric is coming from. And I agree with him on the effect that this division has had on our government. It's more like distract, divide and conquer.
"All the politicians are pitting us against each other," he said. "We're supposed to be a country that's together. But we're not. Ever."
Like Eric, most people aren't all good or all bad, all Republican or all Democrat. People have their reasons why they believe what they believe, and I wish more people would ask and listen instead of tuning out and assuming. It's the only way we will learn to work together toward common goals.
As we go to the polls Tuesday and vote for candidates who have worked to portray their opponents as caricatures of black and white, let's try to see ourselves and others as complicated characters who live in the gray. We all have value, and something to contribute to our country.
(Erika D. Smith, Indianapolis Star)