Last Friday's Alligator Alley episode of mistaken identity, or hoax, or bad joke, or exaggeration, or overreaction - or whatever we end up calling it - has made one thing abundantly clear: We're all a little bit racist.
This is particularly so when people are talking about white Southerners. Yes, white Southerners get a turn at being defended for being the decent folks most of them are, rather than the sheet-wearing, cross-burning, slack-jawed, banjo-picking, cousin-marrying, racist hicks outsiders keep insisting they are.
Let's begin with Eunice Stone, the woman in Calhoun, Ga., who was breakfasting at Shoney's when she overheard three men of apparent Middle Eastern descent making comments she interpreted as terrorist-sounding. What she says she heard was men laughing about 9/11, joking that 9/13 would be much worse, and this:
"Do you think we have enough to bring it down?
"If we don't have enough, I have contacts. We can get enough to bring it down."
Now, let's say you're sitting in a booth eating a bowl of fruit one foot away from a group of men who resemble 100 percent of the known terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks last year, and overhear those words. What would you do?
Eunice Stone says she considered all the options. They might be toying with her, aware that she was listening through the lattice partition. They might be talking about something unrelated to buildings or bridges, but what? Bringing down the audience with great jokes, of which more were available should they run shy of hilarious?
Or, they could be terrorists. So Stone took down their license plate numbers and dialed 911. Exactly as she should have. Exactly as we might wish others had done last year when men resembling these three took up flying lessons and otherwise comported themselves as attractive Arab tourists.
The men in question, who as it turns out were medical students en route to a Miami conference, were released following 18 hours of questioning. Whether they were joking, or whether Stone misunderstood, has yet to be resolved and may never be. For now, we might agree that everyone's a little edgy and that, despite the inconvenience to the three men, the hoped-for voluntary system of citizen reporting and response (and under unluckier circumstances, prevention) worked just fine.
Stone, meanwhile, has been discreetly vilified in that way Southerners know so well. In an interview with Komel Choudhary, the sister of one of the men, CNN's Connie Chung asked whether Choudhary thought her brother had been a victim of racial profiling.
"I think to some extent it is," said Choudhary, "because for one thing they were down in the South. And obviously there's a reputation for people being more racist in the South."
Columnist Rod Dreher reported on National Review Online's "The Corner" that an ABC reporter in New York City had ratcheted the commentary by implying in so many words: "What do you expect from a Georgia redneck?"
Now, here's the truth. If Eunice Stone had heard the same conversation from a bunch of white guys whom she regularly saw at Shoney's, the sort of eatery best known for waitresses named Alice who call customers "Hon," she might have ignored them.
But the fact is, she didn't know these guys, one of whom was wearing a Muslim skullcap, which wouldn't arouse suspicion without the comments, but which, let's face it, is consistent with the native attire of 100 percent of the known terrorists from 9/11.
Is her observation racist or merely discriminatory in the positive, lizard-brain system, survivalist sense? Second question: Isn't is egregiously racist for Choudhary to imply that a white woman in the South can't be relied upon to be un-racist?
The stereotypical Southerner racist today is as much an invention of Hollywood as is the "Magic Negro," as Boston culture critic Renee Graham calls the modern archetypal loyal black servant (think Will Smith in "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), who is endowed with heavenly insights that he uses to guide and morally redeem whitey.
Which is not to say the South isn't home to any racists. Every place is home to some racists, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Cincinnati, where the worst race riots have occurred over the past 30 years. As Malcolm X once said, when it comes to racism, the South means south of the Canadian border.
I don't know Eunice Stone, but I've known plenty of Eunice Stones, and their authentic stereotype tends more toward hugs and home-cooked meals for strangers, even "furners," than suspicion. But they're also vigilant and have reliably good human radar. Stone did the right thing; we should only be grateful she was apparently mistaken.