Although you rarely hear racial insults on Main Street these days, there's a place where unashamed bigotry is all too easy to find: tossed off in the comments sections of some of the Internet's most popular websites, today's virtual Main Street.
Internet anonymity has removed one of the strongest barriers to the type of language that can ruin reputations and end careers.
"We've seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families," said Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star. "There is no question in my mind that the process, because it's largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts."
At the newspaper's website, moderators delete individual racist comments that are brought to their attention, and will take down a whole thread if such comments persist. On some stories that are expected to provoke racism, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.
On tampabay.com, the website of the St. Petersburg Times, readers' posts are not edited, though the paper does reserve the right to delete comments that violate guidelines concerning respectful language or language that abuses or discriminates on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, region, disability, etc.
A recent USAToday.com story about demographic changes in the nation's kindergartens turned into open season on Latinos. "Go to any ER, school, jail and see first hand what race is over consuming precious US resources?" one comment said. Another complained in ugly terms about Latino birthrates.
Some believe such comments indicate that racism has not declined as much as people may think. Joe Feagin, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, said a study he conducted of 626 white college students at 28 institutions revealed thousands of examples of racism in "backstage," all-white settings.
Are these comments cause for alarm?
"Like the loudest ambulance siren you've ever heard," Feagin replied. "All this stuff was already there. It's just the Internet has opened a window into it that we normally would not have had."
Linda Chavez, chairman of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, says racist comments come from a "very small but often vocal minority of people. Most Americans do not like this type of coarse race hatred."
Chavez has received plenty of racist comments in response to her online writings. "My sense, based on their grammar and spelling, is they're not the people who are hiring. These are not influential people who make policy." But she does see a destructive aspect: "It may actually increase the percentage who will feel comfortable expressing these views."
Racist comments may scare average people away from productive conversations about race — conversations that are moving rapidly into the digital domain from print publications, town halls, street corners and shopping malls.
"When there are forums about race, people flock there to do battle," said Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Whenever he blogs about race, "about 20 percent of the comments will be straight-up racist. Another 20 percent are questionable."
The racial comments and other personal attacks have made Deggans, who is black, feel more defensive, as if he's always under attack: "It wears you down after a while."
"I have to constantly coach myself to dial down the hurt and the anger, because you get three comments that are really hurtful and prejudiced, but the fourth is someone who wants to have a genuine conversation," he said.
Some journalism observers believe real names should be required to post comments, some of which would never be chosen for publication in the traditional "letters to the editor" section.
"It astonishes me that they allow such blatant expressions," said Robert Steele, a journalism scholar at DePauw University and the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.
The comments sections of media websites are meant to foster community discussion and keep people engaged with the site, which in turn generates revenue for an industry still struggling to make money online.
As champions of free speech and enemies of censorship, journalists take care to tailor any proposed limits.
"For me, all the problems of online anonymity and comments outweigh any imagined benefits," said Herb Strentz, a retired journalism professor and dean at Drake University in Des Moines. "If people want to contribute thoughtful things, they should be willing to stand up for them and be quoted."
The dynamics of racism on the recipient can be powerful online, said Brendesha Tynes, a professor of psychology and African-American studies at the University of Illinois.
Her study of 264 Midwestern high school students found that 20 percent of whites, 29 percent of blacks and 42 percent of "other" or multiple races reported being personally subjected to racial epithets or other discrimination online — and that these youths were more likely to feel depression or anxiety. The study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
"We've made a lot of progress online and offline on race relations, but you can go into some of these spaces and it will take you back to pre-civil rights times," Tynes said.
"The danger is, people see other folks online saying whatever they want to say, and they think it's acceptable online behavior," she said. "Over time, that might become an acceptable way to talk about race online."