My Breakfast with Tom Metzger
By K-B Gressitt
Tom Metzger is dead, and I am relieved.
But memories of Tom rumble through the orderly rows of avocado and citrus trees in my Southern California town, stirring up the dirt of our racist history.
When Fallbrook became my home thirty years ago, I dutifully learned its two monikers: Avocado Capital of the World and Fallbrook the Friendly Village. Both were debatable, given the persistent transformation of groves to tract housing, and Tom Metzger’s presence in town.
Back then, Tom was a Fallbrook fixture. A short and stout strutter, he was known for his TV repair skills, his toupee, and a black Stetson and cowboy boots that gave him an extra few inches. He was also known for identifying as a racial separatist, which, according to him, was not at all hateful.
“I don’t hate anyone,” he’d say.
No matter how he characterized it, Tom’s ideology was born and bred in white supremacy. It had first been nurtured in the John Birch Society, then the Ku Klux Klan, and finally, when he’d found all others too tame and too Christian (it’s particularly revealing, when a racist finds racist organizations too Christian), he came of age with his creation of a new beast, White Aryan Resistance, WAR.
It was a clever name, presumably intended to attract disaffected youth itching for a fight and the consequent proof of their (toxic) masculinity. Indeed, Tom’s son had reportedly found our high school a Fallbrook-friendly recruiting ground for skinheads.
Tom’s rapport with angry young men, and their propensity for violence, had resulted in another thing he was known for: In 1990, Tom, his then adult son, and WAR had been found civilly liable for encouraging a racist murder by skinheads in Portland, Oregon. The civil suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center ruined Tom and WAR financially, but it was not at all successful in silencing his hate.
Still, I wondered if Tom cringed at the vision of his skinheads beating their victim to death with a baseball bat. Whether he did or not, the man made my hackles rise every time we crossed paths. It was a disconcerting visceral response, and for some damn reason I ran into him all the damn time. At the post office, the grocery store, the gas station: where I went, Tom had a disturbing habit of being there, holding court with the locals who bought his I don’t hate anyone schtick. They could be heard in checkout lines saying I’m not racist, but … But he makes some sense. But we all do prefer our own. But Blacks are racist, too. But there are some good ones. But …
Tom had a veneer of conviviality, and more than a few folks found his calm and congenial persona and his regular appearance at local events—with a tall, bouffant blond after his wife died—adequate proof of an absence of mal-intent. I assumed those who found Tom socially acceptable either had a predisposition to be hornswoggled or were racists too. It seemed best to walk away from them, to keep my child of color out of earshot of their ignorance and fear.
Tom, I could not get away from. I resented the overpowering reaction his physical presence triggered in me. I wanted it to stop, but when he wasn’t crossing my bristling path, he was whopping me upside the head with yet another letter to the editor, demanding my attention at the daily newspaper where I worked. He was a prolific writer, if not an avid fan of grammar. I eventually found myself losing an occasional letter and thinking of Tom as my personal burden—with some profound meaning I was unable to comprehend. He and my raised hackles were some real cosmic horse shit, shit I was determined to muck out of my life. But how?
Then one day, while comparing the chatty deceit of Tom’s latest epistle with the blatant hate of his monthly WAR tabloid, I had a revelation. The way to permanently calm my hackles was to call out Tom’s deceit face-to-face, to goad him into admitting he was the hater I knew him to be, to reveal his ugly underbelly to those who cut him too much social slack. I would capture and publish the perfectly hateful sound bite in my weekly newspaper column.
Being a proper Southerner, hence knowing that you have to feed folks if you’re going to lambast them, I invited Tom to a breakfast interview, asked him to pick the place, and prepped some deeply-researched, probing questions, strategically crafted to spur the big reveal.
Tom picked Opal’s, a breakfast and lunch spot in the center of town. Opal was an aproned, white-haired sort, a consistent winner of the town’s baking contests, and, as Native casinos arose, a happy gambler (a pastime that sadly proved to be her demise, but that’s another story).
When I walked into Opal’s that sunny Fallbrook morning, her crew was serving a lily-white clientele, the 1990s norm in Fallbrook. The cozy walls were adorned with fake flowers, framed memories, and quaint kitsch—produce crate labels, avocado grove paraphernalia, mason jars with lids corroded shut, and the like.
I marched across the room, armed with my facts and clippings from Tom’s hate rag, ready for battle, salivating to slap him off his cocky podium and splat him into the truth: that he did indeed hate Black people—and brown people and Jewish people and anyone else who threatened his fragile sense of supremacy.
And there he was, ensconced at a table, receiving “Hey, Toms” from other diners, his black Stetson centered on the seat of an unoccupied chair.
My hackles rose. I sat. We ordered. And I launched into what I expected to be the most significant interview of my budding journalism career.
What a nincompoop I was.
Maintaining his chatty tone throughout breakfast, Tom expounded the need to establish distinct race-based economic states across North America that would trade commercially but not socially.
He outlined his dystopian theory, envisioning a world degenerated into chronic shortages and conflict, in which we’d all hunker down with our individual tribes, the mud tribes fighting for scraps sloughed off by global elites and capitalists. Better to divide now and secure the best location to assure the white race’s survival—it’s just practicality, he claimed, not hate.
Tom also assured me the crude WAR caricatures of simian and sexualized Black people I slapped on the table before him were only juvenile humor, not at all hateful: “See, now that’s just funny! You don’t get it?”
Finally, presumably to bolster his humanity, he shared the woes of being raised by a divorced mother, adopted by an unloving stepfather, and condemned by those naïve family members who spent too much time worshipping a nonexistent supreme being while rejecting Tom’s wisdom.
A clear-eyed prevaricator, Tom was not about to be revealed. His ugly underbelly would remain hidden in the dark recesses of obscure cablecasts, radio shows, and mail-order hate tracts. He secured his deception with the ability to establish smiling eye contact and, without a blink, declare he was a lover of all peoples. It was then I decided he had not cringed at the vision of murder.
Disgusted more with myself than with him, I paid Opal’s bill and left.
Although I did refuse Tom a place in my weekly allotment of twelve column inches, the failed breakfast confrontation forced me to acknowledge what I‘d been avoiding: In my obsession with Tom, I’d failed to focus on the supremacists in Fallbrook who skated under the racism radar because Tom was a much brighter object. I’d enabled them with my silence every time friendly villagers spewed racist comments, subtle or overt, and I said nothing. I’d basked in the quiet comfort of my own white supremacy.
So it was that I decided to speak. Taking a lesson from child-rearing, I used my words. I used them to remind a neighbor, when he ranted about those people, that my kiddo was one of them; to call out the racist volunteer at the Christian thrift store; to cheer the Latinx workers protesting the bank’s refusal to cash their checks; to shut down the unfamiliar woman who assumed our shared whiteness meant a shared hateful worldview; to rebuke a family member who denied the lasting effects of slavery in order to defend the use of racist language. And the list went on, even after Tom left town.
And the list goes on still.
Tom is dead, but his hate, white supremacy, racism; they live on in the luxury of denial, of accommodation, of silence. They live in the ignorant comments on Facebook pages and in newspapers, in Confederate flags trucking through towns, in nonchalantly uttered those people statements, in community events with nary a person of color on invite lists, in the persistent refusal to acknowledge white privilege, in the continuing recital of I’m not racist, but. They don’t need a Tom Metzger to thrive.
Despite this, though, the racial justice movement has found a place in Fallbrook. We had our own George Floyd protest (with only an occasional small-town exchange of angry middle fingers). We have anti-racist book discussions emerging, Black Lives Matter signs are showing up on fences, and formerly pale neighborhoods are enjoying integration.
This gives me hope—and an unseemly amount of vindictive pleasure when I think of Tom and my calmed hackles. But hope prevails, and I can now imagine that my kiddo of color might hear a new phrase from we Fallbrook folks, a phrase that goes something like this:
“I am racist, but I’m learning not to be.”
Kit-Bacon Gressitt is the publisher and a founding editor of Writers Resist, and a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies lecturer at CalState University San Marcos.
W.A.R. logo credit: Source, Fair Use.