In the weeks after the presidential election, racist acts reached into so many corners of the nation, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when it struck in my generally well-intentioned hometown of Laguna Beach.
During the last week of December, a group of five boys from the high school were implicated in an incident in which a watermelon was thrown at the house of a black classmate. His name was yelled out, along with the awful racial epithet you can guess.
Judging by the chatter, the Facebook talk, the community emails, I was far from the only person who was shocked and enraged, especially when the perpetrators were suspended for a week instead of thrown off their interscholastic teams. The school district told me that it had done all it could, legally. To its credit, it has begun programs to combat intolerance.
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But the community resentment simmered – and then boiled over when the local paper published a letter by parents of two of the boys. The targeted family wouldn’t allow them to apologize, they said. This is true; the white parents of the boy, who was adopted from Malawi, said they wanted the whole family to be left alone. So the parents wanted to apologize to the community.
Except the letter read more like an excuse than an apology. “We are appalled at the events that took place and do not regard this is as a stupid joke or boyish prank,” it says, but then goes on to soften the story. The boys had originally intended to toilet-paper a girl’s house, the parents claim, but when her house was too well-lit, they chose this boy’s house. “It was over in seconds. What was intended as a night to prank a different classmate turned ugly in a moment,” the letter says.
So it’s not a prank, just a prank gone awry?
Two of the boys come from unhappy home lives, I was told by one of the mothers. And the boys wrote heartfelt apologies but weren’t allowed to deliver them.
“It would have made a lot more sense and helped keep the children out of the scathing public eye to get them in a room to talk it out when it first broke,” the mother of one of the boys wrote to me.
Look, I get it. This train wreck ends up belonging to the parents as well, even those who might have done everything to teach their children to cross divides and welcome others. But when teens’ actions cross certain lines, the teens fully deserve to feel the long-term “scathing.” That’s the natural consequence for unacceptable behavior.
“It was over in seconds” – except for the people targeted. There are times we can’t all just apologize, forgive and move on, as though the sting and accompanying fear aren’t carried every day by racial, ethnic and religious minorities.
And that’s the place where we, the white adults who swear we are without racism, need to check ourselves. Acts of racism aren’t resolved with an apology and a healing discussion. Many Trump supporters aren’t racists in the sense that they would ever commit or excuse a hate crime, but they didn’t think racism was a horrifying enough issue for it to change their votes.
In my way, am I any different? I live in a largely affluent town that’s 85 percent white. I’ve bemoaned that demographic, but the natural setting, surrounded by wilderness and hiking trails, meant more to me than raising my children in a more diverse society – or working harder for people of all races to have equal opportunity to live in a beautiful and safe town. Even if it feels a little less safe today.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.