Most African-Americans living in the United States remember the first time that what society at large so politely call the n-word was directed at them and the resultant feelings of betrayal and anger.
For many an African-American, that ugly word stings deeply and calls forth images far beyond the so-called subtleties of racial intolerance to the days of burnings and lynchings of people of color in the United States.
The murder of a black man, who was dragged to shreds along a country road by racists in a pickup truck, made headlines last year and reminded the nation that racism and hate is very much alive in the hearts and minds of some Americans.
Before that, it was a gay man nailed to a fence, and before that, the Oklahoma City bombing in which murdered children were called collateral damage. School shootings feature kids killing kids because they are different.
Hate and racism are daily facts of life in America today.
A few weeks ago, a couple of area teens allegedly firebombed a house owned by a black family in Kauneonga Lake, reminding the local community that the days of police dogs being unleashed against civil rights protesters in the South during the 1960s wasnt that long ago.
On the heels of that allegedly racist arson attempt, a forum on hate crimes was held May 1 at the Seelig Theatre on the campus of Sullivan County Community College (SCCC) in Loch Sheldrake.
Guest speakers included local attorney Josephine Finn, a teacher of constitutional law at SCCC; Karyle Woods, a member of the Sullivan County chapter of the NAACP and Kwanzaa Seven; and Jeffrey A. Ross, director of the Anti-Defamation Leagues (ADL) Department of Campus/Higher Education affairs.
The discussion was organized and moderated by SCCC professor Ron Bernthal, who for many years has taught a course on the Holocaust at the local community college.
When Does It Ever End?
Josephine Finn was at work when she received a phone call notifying her that her first cousins home had been firebombed.
Welcome to the year 2001, she said of her reaction to that phone call. They tried to blow it up, and when that didnt work, they tried to set it on fire. They didnt want them there because of the color of their skin. When does it ever end?
During the program at SCCC, Finn recalled an early example of her African-American experience in America.
As a three-year-old growing up in the 1950s, her parents wanted to travel south to visit relatives living in Louisiana. As her father drove across the Mason-Dixon Line considered among some blacks as a divider between hidden and open racism between the North and South she remembered her dad becoming highly agitated.
I never thought about that experience until the 1960s when I watched people being hosed and having dogs set on them, she said.
According to Finn, the daughter of a mother and grandmother who were preachers, she has experienced racism every day of her life.
She said that, for many people of color, the dream of equality is a dream unfulfilled, adding that a lot of people wake up in the a.m. knowing there is someone [out there] who wants to kill them because of the color of their skin or where they came from.
When you live in this skin, you know whats its like to be Living While Being Black, said Finn.
Im sick of political correctness, she added as the word nigger echoed across the stage. It doesnt stop this kind of behavior. . . . If we dont change things, there are going to be some serious problems in America.
Karyle Woods graduated from Monticello High School in 1969, a year after she stopped going to school in Bensonhurst because she and her fellow students of color were met with signs saying Go Home, Nigger as they got off the school bus.
According to Woods, theres a game called Bowling for Penguins in which local drivers attempt to make Orthodox Jews jump into ditches as an alternative to getting run down.
Then theres more subtle varieties.
Around about election time, the black folks get real popular, she said. There are all kinds of promises, and none are kept. . . . We send mixed messages in this country, [and] we have a lot of work to do.
Hate laws are cool, but so are civil rights laws, she added.
(In 1999, NYS adopted hate crime legislation which adds jail time to a sentence in which the crime has been proven to be motivated by hate.)
What People Have Seen
The local area has its own problems, said Woods.
When I see the Stars & Bars on a bumper sticker in a parking lot, thats not somebody I want to park next to, she remarked.
Her comment drew a round of knowing applause from the sparse audience.
Referring to the allegedly hate-motivated fire bombing in Kauneonga Lake, Jeffrey Ross said, There has been an act of hate perpetrated in this community.
He discussed three areas related to hate crimes: the general nature of the offenses, laws pertaining to hate-motivated crimes and characteristics associated with youth-at-risk.
Hate crimes are acts of terrorism, and they are designed to terrorize an entire community, he said. Everyone becomes vulnerable.
According to Ross, those who hate tend to hate generally: African-Americans, Asians, Jews and gays/lesbians anyone who is different than the hate-filled individual.
Commenting upon the penalty enhancement provision of hate crime laws, he said, Its a statement to society that hate crimes will not be tolerated.
Ross listed several warning signs of alienated youth-at-risk, kids and young adults who often commit hate crimes: withdrawal from social interaction; feelings of isolation, rejection and/or persecution; uncontrolled acts of violence; substance abuse; bullying; a possible history of child abuse; and/or an attraction to symbols of hate or racism.
There is a pool of hate out there, and a lot of alienated people who feel left out and are looking for someone to blame, added Ross. People who hate dont discriminate.
To be continued next week