It's always interesting watching a troubling story unfold in the paper. First the shocking headline -- cross burned on the lawn of a black Arroyo Grande family, the incident referred to as a possible "prank" by AG police Chief Steve Annibali -- followed by backpedaling by the Chief -- no, no, didn't mean prank, meant "hate crime," and the news that the FBI is now on the case and everyone's taking this very seriously -- followed by outraged letters to the editor decrying the event and apologizing to the family and reasserting that Arroyo Grande isn't "that kind of town."
All of which is very heartening. Tuesday's Tribune, included a chart showing the number of hate crimes in the county, with a high in 2001-3 (perhaps caused by the national mental derangement caused by 9/11?) to a low in 2009. In that year, there were 9 incidences described as a "hate crime." That's pretty good news. And the outpouring of letters to the editor is also very good news. Public reassertion of a "norm" of decency is always good news. And lest anyone forget our recent history, Henry County, Alabama finally got around to apologizing to a 91 year-old black woman who, 70 years ago, was brutally gang raped by white boys and the community, via the grand jury, repeatedly refused to indict anyone. It was an ugly act of institutional racism that too often was the norm in many parts of the U.S.
And while we can take heart that such things no longer happen now (well, o.k. don't happen as openly), we should never forget that the deep ugliness of bigotry is simply a fact of life. The reservoir of malice swimming in ignorance and hate is a deep, deep pool that never runs dry. With constant effort, the size of the pool can be reduced, but it never dries up. It can be stirred up by hard times, ignited by the election of a black president, and ginned up and fueled by demagogues of all stripes. It's a toxic virus transmitted from parent to child, from person to person, and can spread with lightening speed on the wings of talk radio and all manner of "social media." In short, a fact of American life.
But there were a couple of wrinkles in this story that I found telling and interesting, and they concern language and the way it shapes the way we perceive "reality." First, the mother of the teenager (on whose lawn the cross was burned) was quoted in the paper as saying, "I will protect her always. I thought I had done a great job protecting her from harm until this point. This just destroyed her faith and mine."
Try as parents might, it's impossible to protect children against the world. But we can make sure our children see the world clearly, warts included. In that way, their "faith" won't be "destroyed" -- dented a bit, maybe, but not "destroyed" -- because their world view includes the hard fact that people behaving badly is simply a part of life. Another way we can arm our kids is to understand that words can create realities, so it's important to use the right word. "Destroy," for example is a powerful word, but it's a word that can often trap someone into creating a reality that may be false.
The other word that complicated this story was the AG. police chief using the word "prank." That got a lot of heat. Cross burning, he was reminded, is never a "prank." When aimed at African Americans, Jews, Muslims, and other minorities, it's a hate crime, plain and simple. When aimed at non-minorities, it's an act of intimidation and terror, (as white supporters of the civil rights movement in the South found out.) Either way, it far surpasses the lark-y sounding word, "prank."
The FBI is now on the job, and it's possible whoever did this will be found and then more of the story will unfold when the question -- What the hell were you thinking? -- gets answered. Maybe. Meantime, I'm heartened by know that good people far outnumber the numbskull swamp dwellers. So, good on Arroyo Grande.