In suburban Greenwich, Conn., five white high school seniors who encoded "kill all niggers" into the school's yearbook captions offered a similar defense: They didn't really mean it.
Claims of moral ignorance are among the oldest tricks of bigotry. As ridiculous as it may sound, we must consider the possibility that at least some young people who make excuses for their acts of hatred are telling the truth: They don't, in fact, know better.
Where, in our multicultural world, are young people getting the message that it's OK to be hateful? Lots of places. Michael Jackson sings, "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me. Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me." New York shock jock Howard Stern berates a black caller by repeatedly calling him a "nigger." Senator Alphonse D'Amato mocks "little Judge Ito." House majority whip Dick Armey refers to his Congressional colleague Barney Frank as "Barney Fag." Presidential contender Bob Dornan calls some of his political adversaries "lesbian spear chuckers."
Have we grown so accustomed to the undercurrent of intolerance in our society that a certain level of hate rhetoric has become acceptable?
Talk is cheap, of course, but the consequences of hate are very real. The FBI counted over 7,000 victims of hate crimes in 1994 alone. Half of the hate crimes reported in this country are committed by teenagers.
To stem the tide of hate speech and hate crime, we must rebuild in our children a new ethic of caring, a firm moral code that does not excuse hatred on any grounds. Some of the most important efforts against hate are being made by teachers all over the country. In many different ways, they are trying to teach the same lesson Martin Luther King Jr. gave us three decades ago:
"We have learned through the grim realities of life and history that hate and violence solve nothing. They only serve to push us deeper and deeper into the mire. Violence begets violence; hate begets hate; and toughness begets a greater toughness. It is all a descending spiral, and the end is destruction -- for everybody. Along the way of life, someone must have enough sense and morality to cut off the chain of hate."
In the classroom, we can break that chain.
Morris Dees is the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.