I made a brief stop at vigil in downtown Durham, site of one of the three cross-burnings that scarred our city Wednesday night (couldn't stay long, the kids were really cranky). Somehow I missed Pam Spaulding, who was also there and gives a good run-down on the vigils here.

The mood was alternately somber and defiant; there was also a spirit of good will that the community was coming together. Many of those who came up to speak were saddened but not really shocked, which has been the dominant media theme: "how could this happen here, and now?"

My view? Given the current social climate, it's a wonder these things don't happen more often.

You may have noticed that North Carolina has become something of ground zero for wingnuts lately. Consider this (incomplete) sampling of news items over the last few months:

*** Last December, it was revealed that Cary Christian School was using as a textbook "Southern Slavery, As It Was," which gives a biblical justification for slavery and claims enslaved African-Americans enjoyed "a life of plenty, of simple pleasures."

*** In early May of this year, a church in Waynesville voted out nine of its members because they refused to "repent their sin" of not voting for President Bush. After controversy flared, the Associated Press reported that the minister says "he'll do it again because he has to according to the word of God."

*** Later in May, Danieltown Baptist Church in Rutherford County displayed a sign outside its church declaring that "The Koran Needs to be Flushed!" Seema Riley, a Pakistani woman who moved to Rutherford County, observed that the church's actions created a "hostile environment."

But, you might say, these are just the antics of local yocals and the extreme fringe, right?

To the contrary. In North Carolina -- like elsewhere -- racism and bigotry go all the way to the top.

Despite its liberal veneer -- a "progressive plutocracy" of the New South, V.O. Key called it in 1949 -- this is also the state that elected Senator Jesse Helms to office from 1972 to 2000. More recently, it has brought us this cast of characters (and again, this is a very incomplete list):
*** Rep. Walter Jones -- the bright bulb who moved to rename "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries" in the congressional cafeteria, and wants to also rename a lake near Raleigh after Jesse Helms -- welcomed the anti-immigrant Minutemen to Washington, D.C. in April, hailing the vigilante border-patrolers as "heroes."

*** In the 2004 Senate campaign, one of Republican Richard Burr's most memorable ads scape-goated immigrants who supposedly want to "cross our borders and take our jobs." Advocates declared this was an "attack on the Latino community," and the language foreshadowed a resurgence of hate-filled rhetoric against legislation in North Carolina to allow the kids of undocumented residents to receive in-state tuition.

*** Deposed Rep. Cass Ballenger (R) -- called "one of the House's most notorious bigots" -- felt no qualms in 2003 declaring that he had "segregationist feelings" towards fellow Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) (who he also called a "bitch"); claimed that his divorce was largely due to "stress" he felt from his D.C. office being across the street from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group; and proudly displayed a black-faced lawn jockey in front of his Hickory home (which, after news hit the papers, he later painted white).
Now where do you think small-change bigots would get the idea that public expressions of racism and intolerance are ok?

And of course this doesn't even touch on the structural racism that deeply shapes our lives every day -- predatory banking, discrimination on the job, redlined communities, racial profiling by law enforcement, racial bias in sentencing, arbitrary detentions and deportations of immigrants, school re-segregation, voter disenfranchisement, environmental racism -- all carried out (or allowed to happen) on a grand scale by the elites of finance, industry and government.

Racist "incidents" don't just happen in a vacuum -- they're the product of people who feel the broader culture has given them a green light to act on their basest hate and fears.

My hope is that we will use the Durham cross burnings to challenge not just the most visible and violent expressions of bigotry -- which is very important -- but also use it as an opening to face the deeper forms of inequality and injustice that make such antics sadly innevitable.