The sight of it made me want to vomit. It was 11 a.m. on a Sunday and I stood on the sidewalk in my pajamas staring at my neighbor's driveway. Scrawled across it were a series of enormous capital letters written in bright orange chalk spelling out the words "NIGGER LOVER." Next to that was a bright yellow drawing of a penis, about the size of a person, complete with arms, legs and a face. On the left arm was an armband with a swastika.
My neighbor's house gets toilet papered once or twice a year. It's done by local teenagers, usually in the spirit of fun. But this was different. For the record, my neighbors are white and fair-minded. But they are not aware of any particular incident or set of circumstances to which any of this might refer. Perhaps it was indeed just an innocent teenage prank gone way too far. To think otherwise is simply too awful. But the idea somebody could use such words and symbols so easily says something equally disturbing about our circumstances.
I stood there thinking of the otherwise reasonable people I've heard casually firing off racially degrading comments as though they were self-evident. I thought of the stories of business owners and other concerned citizens insinuating crime rates would be lower if we didn't have so many black people. I thought of the times over the years I've overheard black college students comparing stories about locals shouting things at them such as, "What's the matter, boy? You lost?" as they walk across Tiffin. Such stories are more common than any of us would like to believe.
Maybe people forget that these kinds of comments, attitudes and actions are not harmless - they are hurtful to real people. And in a mostly white, two-university town, those real people mostly are college students. They are 18- and 19-year-old sons and daughters living away from their families for the first time. I would hope our own children are treated better as they venture on to new places and challenges.
I do not believe, at its heart, the city of Tiffin is as racist a place as it sometimes comes off. But I do firmly believe it is far too tolerant of the racism within its midst.
It happens at small gatherings between friends, at our places of employment, out in the community and even among families. Somebody makes a joke or a comment that clearly crosses a line. Some people laugh harder than others, some not at all. Some look around the room uncomfortably. Some of us give a knowing glance to one another. We take a moment to feel morally superior because we would never say such a thing. We never speak out.
But it doesn't end there. When our indifference and tacit endorsements of insensitive behavior accumulate, a culture begins to form where they become acceptable. Our lack of response creates a climate in which people could feel justified in approaching 19-year-olds to say things we pray nobody would ever say to our own sons and daughters.
Our children grow up in this environment, too, and over the years learn that drawing a swastika on somebody's driveway qualifies as harmless fun on a Saturday night.
It is true racism never can be completely eliminated. But it can be isolated. People who display hatred of other races need to know just how far outside the mainstream they stand, and their actions must be unequivocally denounced. Those who can be swayed need to know where the majority lies. Those who use racist language must be reminded that even casual comments among family and friends are not appropriate. And those with a mind to speak out against such behavior need to know they will be embraced for doing so, not scoffed at for rocking the boat and causing a scene.
It is said, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing." We might mistake this as saying we must take all possible measures, such as organizing protests, writing letters to politicians, joining advocacy groups. We might find this too daunting, not because we don't care, but because we just don't have the time. So rather than doing anything at all, we resign ourselves to the status quo. We forget we must at least do something.
I must do something.
I am saddened that racism has confronted me - on my street, in my neighborhood, in my city, in my country - in those chalk markings and in the words and actions of others. By declaring this publicly, I hope more people will join me in a sense of outrage that these things happen here in Tiffin, in the year 2009. And I hope by reading this, city leaders, members of the media, clergy, law enforcement, and people of good conscience will join me in acknowledging this problem.
I hope the kids with the chalk come to realize the potential harm - however unintentional - that might come by their actions. I hope they apologize.
More importantly, I hope our black, Asian, Jewish and Latino neighbors don't once again have to shrug off offensive actions or language as a consequence of our indifference.
Finally, I hope this writing serves as some small penance toward the many times in my life when I have stood quietly by in the face of racial injustices both great and small. May God grant me the strength never to do so again.
is a guest columnist who lives in Tiffin.