Fliers like this one, tucked in Ziploc baggies and weighed down with a handful of birdseed, were found in a Leesburg over the weekend. (Petula Dvorak/TWP)
Columnist

Light or darkness?

That's an important question when it comes to America's festering racism.

The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched on Charlottesville, the cowardly racists posting anonymous fliers on college campuses, the social media trolls derailing any civil discussion anywhere — what do they all want?

Attention.

Why else would someone come to a suburban neighborhood in Northern Virginia and drop racist and anonymous Ku Klux Klan fliers on driveways in the dark of night on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend?

Homeowners on Aurora Court in Leesburg woke up to those fliers. One of the neighbors in the enclave of bisque- and putty-colored homes went up and down the street, removing the missives — which were strangely packaged in plastic zip-top bags weighed down with handfuls of birdseed — before the rest of the street saw them. It could be the same KKK group that has been targeting small towns all over Virginia in what one KKK "imperial wizard" described as a big membership drive.

"I've never seen anything like this here. It's not what this place is like," one distressed resident said.

That's what the woman in the smart parka and chic sunglasses said, too. She'd spent time in Austria.

"I lived in Vienna. Nothing like this there," she said.

She is a worldly, 68-year-old grandmother who is the boss at a tech company and who traveled the globe as a military wife. She couldn't give me her name, she said, because she's a government contractor.

In her experience, giving "immature minds" attention is counterproductive.

"That's what they want, they want you to write about it," she told me on her driveway, where one of the disgusting fliers had landed. It said, "On Martin Luther King Day, you are honoring a communist alcoholic pervert."

She said she believes the administration is fueling incidents like this. But she also believes the fliers are a stunt that doesn't represent what most Americans are really like. If the media stops covering these incidents, it will deprive them of the oxygen they need to get their message out.

I remember when I lived in New Orleans decades ago, a neighborhood on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain — very similar to this one in Northern Virginia — awoke to fliers from the KKK. Editors debated whether to cover it, worried about giving a megaphone to hatred vs. ignoring festering ugliness.

I don't think the paper covered it. I only found mention of the incident a couple of years later, when a local pastor was honored for organizing a community alliance against racism after it happened.

For 20 years after that, no media in the area reported on a similar incident. Because it didn't happen? Or it was happening and we were ignoring it?

Flash forward to 2017 and 2018, and stories just like the one in The Washington Post — reporting on the incident over the weekend and quoting law enforcement agencies that are investigating it — are appearing all over the country. Google "KKK fliers." From Maine to Washington, California to Florida, they're becoming as popular as those impossibly cheap carpet cleaning coupons you can't get away from.

The Southern Poverty Law Center found 329 fliering incidents on nearly 250 college campuses since March 2016. My colleague Joe Heim wrote about how hate groups are making an unprecedented push to recruit on college campuses.

"I think it isn't surprising at all that this is happening right now. I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner," said one of the Aurora Court neighbors who found the racist flier.

"I think these people are emboldened," he said.

The other night, he and his wife were at the local Wegmans. He saw a Hispanic family in the crosswalk and watched as a car drove past them and the driver spewed nasty stuff at the family, telling them something like, "Trump will get rid of you."

"This is something I have never seen before. But there it was, invoking his name right there," the man said. "That tells you what's happening and where this is coming from."

This guy should know. He's a 46-year-old who works in the intelligence community for the federal government and is a world traveler. He said he couldn't have his name in the paper. But he wanted me to know he's got some perspective on this.

"I'm from Georgia," he said. "And I've never seen a KKK flier before this."

The degree — rather than the existence — of President Trump's racism took up most of the national conversation over the weekend.

Some cowardly birdbrain dropping Ku Klux Klan fliers in a quiet, suburban neighborhood may not be earth-shattering news. Yes, maybe it's just a kid who wants to make the papers. It's probably not a national security issue, and it certainly doesn't define the character of that street, that neighborhood, the state or our country.

But it is thriving in the darkness, growing and emboldening. Whoever left those fliers truly believed there was fertile ground for those seeds of hatred.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," Martin Luther King Jr. taught us.

So we have to keep shining that light. It's too late to think that darkness will make any of this go away.

Twitter: @petulad