A lot of older, sadder and wiser people said a bunch of thoughtful things last week at Arroyo Grande’s community forum against hate and bias. But the remark that lodged in my mind, and heartened me, came from a high school kid.
“Our generation will not tolerate this,” said Ryan Page of Arroyo Grande High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
By “this,” he meant bigotry. And by his remarks and his presence, he moved the discussion into the future, beyond regrets about America’s appalling racial past and dismay about a present in which a cross still can be burned outside the window of an African-American girl, as it was in Arroyo Grande last month.
That’s not to say I’m writing off the present generation, although it is sometimes tempting to do so when we witness current events such as the cross burning, pipe bombs left at synagogues, routine anti-gay speech, generalized anti-Muslim rants from elected officials, racism against Latinos in Arizona and California and other dismaying behavior.
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It seems my generation has left young Mr. Page and his cohorts quite a mess to clean up.
But we’re still working that street, too. Some of us always have been. That’s true of every generation of Americans, usually against daunting odds. The forum Monday was an effort by a small group of those Americans in a tiny corner of the country to come to grips with a single racist act in one community.
Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt of the NAACP moderated, and she set the tone right away.
“We can’t sweep it under the carpet,” she said. “We need to deal with it.”
Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals, who, along with Page and others was on the discussion panel, doffed his government hat and spoke as a father.
Shoals, who is African-American, recalled that, when his daughter was in third grade, a blonde girl would not go on the playground because she was afraid of the “different” child.
A third-grade teacher heard about it and led her class in a discussion about the episode and its implications — a lesson, as Shoals said, about ignorance.
“They seized on an opportunity to teach and not let it fester,” Shoals said. “It was a teaching moment. It only takes one ignorant person to set us back.”
Panelists and some of the 120 people present returned repeatedly to the theme of not sweeping the cross burning under the rug. Many local people reacted defensively and said the incident is not representative of the town.
Lyons-Pruitt challenged them to “make sure it does not become representative.”
Some speakers suggested the town is in denial if they think racial intolerance is limited to this one incident.
“There are little signs out there that we see and don’t speak up,” Shoals said.
“It does happen here,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson concurred. “It happens every day, on different levels. We can’t ignore it. Don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. Say something.”
Adam Hill, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, has taught at both Cal Poly and Louisiana State University, and says the behavior goes beyond Arroyo Grande.
“There is a fair amount of unresolved racial tension in our culture,” Hill said. When people encounter it, he urged them, “Don’t be cautious. Keep talking, and talk openly.”
Panelist Booker Neal, a retired civil rights expert with the U.S. Department of Justice, added that hate crimes are often underreported.
Speakers danced around the 800-pound Caucasian gorilla in the room: the fact that San Luis Obispo County is mostly white.
I’ve often thought of it as a gated county, trying to keep out those whose ancestors did not cross the plains on a wagon train, and doing so in a smug, self-congratulatory way.
My own take is that this attitude creates a cultural environment in which hate crimes may not be welcomed, but neither are they discouraged.
After all, a cross burning reflects nothing so much as it reflects ignorance.
“They’re message crimes,” said panelist Cyndi Silverman of the Anti-Defamation League. “They’re basically about ignorance.”
We should teach kids when they’re young to fight bias, Silverman told her audience of adults, adding that they should “look at your own bias.” Bias, she said, is based on fear.
Will this episode end with the well-attended panel discussion? Many people left vowing to do something more. But, to my knowledge, nothing has happened yet.
So here’s my challenge: Don’t let this end here or even with the inevitable arrest of the cross burner. Build some sort of social structure to fight discrimination on a continuing basis.
As Mr. Page said, “We need less apathy and more empathy.”
We also need some of the political and social activism that has kept this country moving forward.
The Arroyo Grande cross burning has indeed been a teaching moment. Now we need to show what we have learned, and build on it.