Letter: Xenophobic attitudes have no place here

To the Editors:

I am a concerned local resident who had a most unexpected encounter with racism and hate-speech at the Ridgefield Public Library on Sept. 15.

I attended a free and open presentation by a Ridgefield group involved in the late stages of a privately funded community co-sponsorship of a refugee family in Ridgefield. I have been privileged to be involved as a volunteer in similar initiatives and was ready to lend a hand .

The meeting became quickly hijacked by a small but vocal group of area residents who had apparently come to protest the initiative.

Their arguments ranged from a desire to prohibit refugee children from accessing public school services to a concern that Ridgefield property values would decline if a refugee family were permitted to move within the town lines, to a more generalized indictment of the perceived “dangers of Islam” in which spurious case arguments were lifted from various websites. Some appeared to have come with prepared comments, and were under the impression that the private sponsorship of a refugee family should be subject to a public referendum, as if individuals could be “voted out” of Ridgefield on the basis of their ethnic or religious background.

One opponent, who identified himself as the leader of a religious organization, argued that allowing people from “that part of the world” to Ridgefield was akin to “putting them on the moon,” and they would be better off sent to Danbury, Norwalk or Stamford, where there were more people like them.

Common to all of the arguments was an angry, reactionary “Not-in-My-Backyard”-style meme that descended quickly into racist, hate speech. I was appalled and embarrassed that ignorant prejudice of this sort exists in what is otherwise represented as a proudly affluent, congenial and well-educated community.

I left the meeting early, as I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend socializing with bigots. As I left the program room, a woman accosted me with a tri-fold flier about the “dangers of Islam.” I dropped it back in her lap and said it was “racist garbage,” and she replied that she “felt sorry for me” and that I should “educate myself.”

If these comments had been directed at members of the African-American, Asian, Hispanic or Jewish communities, they would be roundly regarded as racist and inflammatory in the extreme.

Most of the time, I feel privileged to live in Fairfield County. But I am reminded that well within the 50-75 years, a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” regime pervaded real estate, educational, and community cultural practices within our own and neighboring towns as a means of bullying unwanted ethnic groups out of moving into the area by making their exclusion an institutionalized feature of life. I thought this kind of reactionary prejudice was a cringe-worthy relic of the past, and certainly a blight on our history, but apparently it is still alive and breathing. These attitudes are a shameful embarrassment to Fairfield County.
Rebecca Engmann Darst
Wilton, Sept. 15