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More voices are essential to discourse about hate

An assistant principal at Tarpon Springs High School told Krista Abram that the thing she wanted to talk about was controversial and the school would rather she leave it alone.

Now that's one way to deal with race. Just hope that the sore feelings the subject provokes will go away _ even though they're as powerful and immense as the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Krista, who is biracial, circulated a petition asking the school to ban kids from wearing symbols, such as the Confederate flag, that could be discriminatory or offensive. Her petition, which hadn't been approved by school officials, got her suspended.

It's been a bad couple of months for racial tolerance in Tampa Bay, but at least we are still talking. Or are we?

We've heard outrage over the slashing of a public art exhibit on tolerance and the lowering of a noose on the head of a black teen at a Largo Wendy's.

To many of us, those events are deemed acceptable for discussion. They were episodes in which black people were on the losing end of the equation.

But what happens when the role is reversed? Are we able to talk about it?

Or are we as quieted as Krista's petition?

Last week, I wrote about the conviction of a Hillsborough County man, Alan Thompson, who is black. With just one punch, he killed a white man, Christopher Fannan, in 2002, in a confrontation that seems to have been over nothing. Thompson's brother and a friend thought they'd been dissed by a group of whites. The two young men returned with Thompson, who, almost instantly, threw the fatal punch at Fannan. He had been sitting on a car eating sunflower seeds.

I wrote the column from what I'll call the comfortable point of view. I said that having blacks on a jury in a case like this was important, that a black person might bring a different, but equally valid perspective when it came time to examine the facts. Thompson was tried twice. The first time, the jury deadlocked when the only black person on the panel refused to convict. The second time, an all-white jury swiftly found him guilty of third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Readers _ presumably white ones, given their responses _ were swift to react. If Thompson had been white, and Fannan black, I was told, Thompson would have been charged not only with murder but with a hate crime.

The mere fact that it was a faceoff between a group of blacks and a group of whites meant Thompson's punch was a crime motivated by race, one reader said. Did I really think blacks had no hate for whites in their hearts?

Those words are part of the other side of the racial equation, a side not often aired. We create more anger and resentment when we ignore it.

In 1998, Thompson confronted a woman who had a Confederate flag sticker on her truck. She said he spit at her, and when she pushed him in return, he punched her. He also punched a man who tried to intervene.

Authorities reviewed the case as a possible hate crime, but Thompson was never charged with one. He was lucky. He pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor battery. It might have been two counts, but the woman in the case refused to testify.

I was unable to learn why Thompson wasn't charged with a hate crime, but from this distance it looks as though he benefited from a double standard, just the thing some of my readers were complaining about. It makes me wonder how often that happens.

Even Roy Kaplan, the executive director of the bay area chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice _ a group at the forefront of combating hate _ acknowledged to me "the possibility of a double standard" in hate crime prosecution. But he emphasized that the vast majority of racially driven hate crimes are committed by whites. Hate crimes are an expression of power, and often the power is in the majority.

Kaplan makes a lot of speeches. Later this month he'll be giving his spiel at Tarpon Springs High School, an appearance unrelated to the flap over Abram's petition.

How I wish he could find a way to include more voices in the dialogue.

_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at or (813) 226-3402.