A Question of Color : Orange County DA draws very fine line in parking lot assault case

Being a person of color can be a health hazard in American society. That point has come dramatically home to Southern California in recent weeks as the investigation into the horrible attack on a 15-year-old Orange County girl in a parking lot plodded to a conclusion.

Tuesday, the district attorney filed assault and weapons charges, but what has anybody learned?

The Orange County Sheriff's Department and district attorney certainly cannot be accused of having rushed to judgment.

It took the outrage of the region's entire civil rights community before sheriff's investigators reversed themselves and acknowledged a racial dimension in forwarding their recommendation to the district attorney. This, despite the fact that a number of witnesses said the attack was fueled by the racial insults by whites against blacks.

But in issuing its complaints Tuesday on both sides of the fight, the district attorney's office decided to leave out any of the hate-crime charges from the sheriff's investigation. It reasoned that racial hatred was not the cause for the fight, even though racial epithets were uttered during the course of it.

The district attorney has the difficult responsibility of presenting a provable case, but to say that race was a component of a fight but not the cause draws a very fine line. Amber Jefferson's family--her white mother and black father--and civil rights activists have questioned the assertion of law-enforcement officials all along that the race question was so complex.

Their argument that blacks have to meet a special standard of justice may not be put to rest by the district attorney's reasoning. And images of Amber's face, ripped open by a piece of glass, may linger long in the public's mind.

These kinds of incidents may well reoccur as the region becomes increasingly multicultural. And to conduct such investigations credibly, all area law-enforcement agencies must send unequivocal signals that they intend to root out bigotry.

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