"Do I know my neighbors? I don't want to know my neighbors," one man said. "We know who they are. You see enough 'isolated incidents' and you know you're among racists." Just days before the listening session, his family heard young white men in a pickup truck yell, "White power!" at a multiracial group of teenagers outside a movie theater near their home.
I sensed the guilt felt by parents who moved to Orange County for good schools and safe streets but found their children ostracized and taunted. Some had trouble telling their stories, tearing up as they spoke, then apologizing as if they'd done something wrong.
"I moved here so he could have a good education," said a sobbing Tyesha Emery. But her son's classmates pelted him with racial slurs and dumped him in a trash can after football practice. "He used to be such a good student," she said. "Now he doesn't even want to go to school anymore."
Another mother's voice cracked as she admitted, with her teenage daughters looking on, "I feel like I have to spend every day countering the message that there is something wrong with us, wrong with being black."
It was the first time many of those residents had shared their stories, Kennedy said. "They want to assume things are not racially motivated. I see people go through this internal process where you don't want to face it. You don't want to be defined by that ... so you don't tell the story."
But it seemed to me as I listened that it's also hard to sort perception from fact.
What to make of the soft-spoken silver-haired woman insulted by a police officer "who was staring me down as I waited on the corner for the light to change." Or the mother still brooding because a kindergarten teacher ran out of name tags just before getting to her daughter — the only black child in the class — 20 years ago?
What was clear is that the weight of accumulated slights can prime you to suspect the worst of every uncomfortable encounter. And over time, you either shoulder the blame or resent the strangers around you.
The commission plans to share the stories it collects with law enforcement, school and city officials. Kennedy believes that they can learn something.
"What happened in Yorba Linda was a horrendous crime, and we should go after the people who did it," Kennedy said. "But there's this idea that blacks shouldn't make a big deal out of it; that it just tends to make people feel worse, like everybody is a racist.
"The desire to have this behind us ... that's more prevalent in people who have never experienced discrimination," he said.