I was stunned the other day to discover the depths of racial and religious hatred in a friendly neighbor who has been a casual guest in my home.

I’m not talking about the subtle prejudice we sometimes feel when dealing with a stranger of another race. Distrust or fear of the “other” is part of our evolutionary heritage.  It cuts each way, across all racial divides, and most of us modern folks can recognize it and put it aside and try not to let it affect our judgment or actions.

No, I am talking about something else: a stark, bitter racial hatred that I have not heard articulated since traveling through backward parts of the country 50 years ago.  This hatred is so much a part of the character of this person (whom I’ll just call “Bigot” here) that it is expressed openly, with conviction, certainty and passion.  To Bigot, blacks are “savages” and “criminals” who should all be put in jail.  Bigot taunts and makes off-color jokes about Moslems–even in the presence of a Moslem.  Bigot insists that our president, like all blacks, hates America–proven by his following of Jeremiah Wright.  Gays get it too.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  I am chagrined that during several hours of conversation over the last couple of months I did not pick up on Bigot’s hatred–until the other day when a news broadcast was on the TV and the mention of Obama set Bigot off.

Why am I so surprised by this?  I know race hatred exists.  Is it just that I am insulted to hear it in my own living room, in a part of the country not known for racial animosity?  Or have I lost something I used to have, a journalist’s ability to quickly pick up clues about another person’s attitude?  Or am I no longer paying enough attention to what’s going on around me?

More to the point, what do I do now about this “friendly” neighbor? Certainly Bigot is no longer welcome in my home.  Beyond that, do I just cut Bigot dead?  Do I just say hello when I see Bigot and walk right by?  Should I try to enlighten the hater?

Or should I just throw the hatred right back with a joke or two about Bigot’s own ethnic background? That one sounds like fun but I’m sure it’s not a good idea.