I don't know Logan Beaschler, the Bakersfield kid at the center of the dormitory harassment case that has roiled San Jose State University since last September. I don't know what might have slithered into his brain, or how, or at what point in his life the slithering began to take place, but the evidence is vividly distasteful.
Beaschler, 18, and three others are accused of intimidating their African-American, then-17-year-old dorm-mate by displaying a Confederate flag, writing a racial slur on a living room dry-erase board, repeatedly locking him in his room and hooking a U-shaped bicycle lock around his neck. They also allegedly nicknamed him "Three-fifths," a reference to the legislative compromise of 1787 that counted blacks as 40 percent less than whole persons. When the college freshman complained, they abbreviated the humiliation to "Fraction."
Beaschler faces misdemeanor hate-crime and battery charges and faces up to a year in jail. He pleaded not guilty in Santa Clara County Superior Court a few days ago.
A recurring theme among the readers who commented on the story on Bay Area newspaper websites was that the overt racism these young men exhibited was surely the product of their upbringing: a racist home life, a racist peer group, a racist community. (Two of the other defendants are from Fresno County and rural Marin County; the third, a minor, has not been identified.) There's surely some truth, perhaps nuanced, in that mix. But this sort of behavior is nurtured by many contradictory factors.
Full disclosure: I know Beaschler's parents. My daughter played soccer with their middle child, a sweet, funny tomboy who happened also to be an intrepid goalkeeper. Pardon the cliche, but they're as nice as they can be. That household did not produce a skinhead, period.
So what happened? At some point in a kid's life, generally speaking, he's as much influenced by peers as by parents. Who were those peers, and what kind of flags were they pinning up in their garages? Beyond that, there's the idiot factor, which handicaps an alarming number of 18-year-old men/boys. The same brain development issues that lead some to spin donuts in the school parking lot at 3 a.m. can affect judgement when it comes to human interaction.
Put those reason-stunted men/boys in the same housing unit with little or no adult supervision and you have the same essential ingredients that fueled "Lord of the Flies." In the absence of a naive, gentle, intellectual, chubby, bespeckled Piggy, anyone who is different becomes a potential target for bullying. And the thing that makes them different becomes the theme of that bullying. Unfortunately for all concerned (or perhaps fortunately), this target's differentness was, with good reason, shielded with an extra layer of consequences for those who would abuse them: hate crime enhancements.
Still, it's baffling how reasonably intelligent men/boys can blunder so callously. It's baffling, that is, until one considers their ilk's immersion in a culture that routinely flouts principles of basic respect and good taste in the name of "humor."
What's amusing in one context is not amusing in another. What may work on a comedy club stage starts a fight on a street corner. And, as any sociologist will tell you, blacks have always dictated the course of American "cool," from music to dress, and white youths' striving to keep pace can be fraught with land mines. Hey, Kanye can talk about this kind of stuff, can't he?
The San Jose State case synthesizes those ingredients and then tops it off with this toxic frosting: Those men/boys' words and actions weren't about abstract characters or circumstances. They were imposed on a real person. And that is the difference between this elusive thing some call "edginess" and shockingly brutal racial abuse.
Whatever the outcome of his court case, let's hope Logan Beaschler learns that. Let's hope others do, too. It may be catching.
Email Executive Editor Robert Price at email@example.com.