Seth said he just wanted all of them to understand: He is not a racist.
Later, he would explain himself this way: “I never really understood the symbol of the swastika. I knew it was wrong to plaster it somewhere. I didn’t learn exactly what [the Nazis] were doing to the Jews until I went to the Holocaust Museum. I never learned that they were mutilated. I knew that they were, like, burned. But I never learned that they had experiments done on them, were injected with diseases. The school didn’t include that. They just included the burning and the train cars.”
His understanding of the KKK was limited, too, he said. “Some people think it’s just a word, or a symbol or three letters put together. . . . But they were lynching people, hurting people for no good reason.”
Now, he said, he knows. But he still doesn’t believe his actions that night make him a bigot.
“I spray paint one racist thing and, suddenly, I become a racist? Just because I did it doesn’t mean I hate Jews, gay people or black people.”
He was standing before the judge, pleading guilty to a hate crime, but he would not admit that he harbored any hate.
All around him, the adults agreed.
“He will forever be known as the racist kid at Glenelg, but that’s not who Seth is,” his father said in court that day.
“I told him that his act was racist, but don’t let it define him as a racist. He can and I pray that he will go on and do better,” Maxwell Ware, the African American pastor he met with, wrote in a letter supporting him.
“He is not a racist . . . he has a good heart,” his attorney told the judge.
Behind her, Principal Burton was listening. He’d heard Joshua Shaffer’s attorney give a similar speech. When Matthew Lipp was sentenced, he would hear it then too. Tyler Curtiss had written it in a Facebook apology the day after the crime. Tyler, Burton knew, had turned to Jesus, joining a church where he talked openly about the swastikas he painted that night. He had spent months telling his story to Jewish congregations, interfaith groups and the county’s board of rabbis. Come the day of his sentencing, Tyler would say: “I hold no hatred toward any human being, especially those in the communities that were affected.”
They all believed it was possible to do what they did without really meaning it.
Burton wanted to look them in the eye and say: “You did something very racist. How you don’t think you’re a racist, I don’t know.”
What he did know was what they’d been taught in school: Glenelg covered the Holocaust and the Klan in detail, in U.S. history and American government and world history and in the books they read for language arts.