Since my family moved to Arroyo Grande two years ago, we have been pleased by our decision to put down roots in the quaint, historic town.
Few things bring us more joy than taking a trip to Doc Burnstein’s for ice cream, walking across the swinging bridge on a lazy afternoon or spending Memorial Day weekend at the annual Strawberry Festival.
It’s a place where locals have welcomed us with smiles and an outpouring of neighborly affection.
That’s why my heart sank and stomach turned after learning last week that an 11-foot cross had been set ablaze at the home of a black teenager.
Now, I’m not so naïve that I did not think something as hateful and shameful could ever happen in such an idyllic town.
As a journalist and someone who has lived in small and large cities across the nation, I recognize that despicable acts can happen anywhere.
As a black American, I am also keenly aware of the ugly truths in our nation’s past and present. As much as I would like it to be otherwise, the possibility that a person of color may be confronted with racism in his or her lifetime is a fact of life.
While I have a healthy dose of realism about race relations in this country, it didn’t make the cross burning any less infuriating, hurtful and sad, not just for the family who was subjected to this evil, but for all the families of color in our midst who might wonder if they, too, could be targeted.
It was equally disappointing to read the initial response by law enforcement and the mayor, who appeared reluctant to investigate the incident as a hate crime.
My mother used to tell me about my grandmother’s fear of the Knight Riders in her native South Carolina, and so I understand what it means when a cross is burned as a form of intimidation and terrorism.
In this case, there was no room for ambiguity.
For a moment, I stepped into this family’s shoes.
Who would have my back if the same thing happened to my two children? How would I explain this to them, and would they ever feel safe or trusting of others again?
Fortunately, in recent days, law enforcement has increased its efforts to find the perpetrators, and the response has now taken the tone of seriousness that such a hate crime demands.
Even more encouraging has been the overwhelming support of the community, which has kept up the pressure to seek justice.
The actions of those who burned the cross that day should not tarnish Arroyo Grande or Central Coast residents, who have expressed appropriate disgust and outrage at such an act.
My family has been shaken by this crime, but we will continue to build our lives here, hoping for the sake of our children that this does not happen again.
The teenager who awakened that painful night to a burning cross outside her window no longer has the luxury of hope for the town she called home.
For her family, home, if they choose to stay, will never be the same.