MURRIETA, Calif. - Like thousands of other Californians over the past decade, Crystal Farr came with her family to the booming suburbs of inland Southern California for cheaper housing than she could find along the coast.
Farr has come to question the wisdom of the move, however, following the arrest of dozens of alleged white supremacists and a series of racially charged incidents, including an attack in which two students beat her teenage son at school.
The stay-at-home mother, who is black, said the arrests added to her feeling that not everyone is welcome in the rapidly diversifying region east of Los Angeles, where whites are no longer a majority.
While the Farr family's experience may be extreme, other families also feel uneasy and would move if they could afford housing elsewhere, said Loraine Watts, president of the NAACP chapter in nearby Lake Elsinore.
"The problem is, where do you go with the price of real estate? Your hands are tied," said Watts, who says she regularly fields complaints of racism.
Law enforcement authorities and other local officials say it's unfair to characterize the Inland Empire - as the region of more than 3 million people in Riverside and San Bernardino counties is known - as a bastion of racism.
Riverside County Deputy District Attorney John Ruiz said there are occasional flare-ups of racial tensions in schools and pockets of white supremacists, mostly in more rural areas where new subdivisions bump up against dirt roads and ranches.
"You find that some people have moved out to these rural areas because they don't like rubbing elbows with ethnic minorities," said Ruiz. "It's a small, but very vocal, minority."
Ruiz prosecuted one of the region's most notorious hate crimes - a 1999 incident in which a black man from Murrieta was chased and beaten by members of the neo-Nazi Western Hammerskins. Five men were sentenced to prison and local leaders of the group moved to Mesa, Ariz.
But the problem didn't disappear.
In January, authorities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties announced that, working with the FBI in separate investigations, they had arrested more than 40 people allegedly tied to white supremacist groups with names such as Public Enemy Number One and Angry Nazi Soldiers. The arrests, mostly on drug and weapons charges, took place over more than a year.
The California attorney general has reported that hate crimes dropped 10 percent statewide from 2002 to 2003, the latest figures available. At the same time, San Bernardino and Riverside counties reported a combined increase of 19 percent, for a total of 148 hate crime incidents, a broad category that can include vandalism, arson and assault. That number is lower than Los Angeles County, for example, but the two counties combined have far fewer people.
Authorities say southern Riverside County, which includes Murrieta, appears to have the most significant problem. Still, it is difficult to generalize about a region which is nearly the size of South Carolina and ranges from snowcapped mountains and deserts to older, diverse cities such as Riverside and newer suburbs like Murrieta, which has about 77,000 people.
The region is one of the nation's fastest growing. The two-county population increased more than 25 percent from 1990 to 2000, while the share of non-Hispanic whites declined from about 63 percent of the total to less than half, according to census figures.
That trend is reflected in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, where the nonwhite student population grew from 28 percent in 1999 to 42 percent in 2004.
"Our community has almost doubled in five years," said Karen Parris, a district spokeswoman who said claims of racial tension are exaggerated. "Statistics show that whenever a community grows ... you get an increase in social problems."
The school district, urged on by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups, last year created a human relations council to address racial issues. Following the announcement of the Riverside County arrests in January, the sheriff announced a partnership with other local agencies to reduce hate crimes at schools, which have been shaken over two years by incidents including the beating of Farr's son and an attack on another black teen, both of which occurred in 2003 at Murrieta Valley High School.
The two teens who attacked Sam Farr were 14 and 17 at the time. They pleaded guilty to assault and making racial threats, were sentenced to juvenile hall and have since been released.
But Sam Farr, now 17, said problems persist. Last month, as he walked home from school in his ROTC uniform, he claims the elder of his two assailants yelled a racial slur at him before speeding off in a pickup truck. Crystal Farr, who moved to Murrieta five years ago, said she's afraid to let her son and 15-year-old daughter go to the movies alone.
"People should know that this is going on out here," said Crystal Farr, 51, whose family has filed a lawsuit against the district, joining the parents of two other black teens who allege they were victims of racial harassment at the school.
There has been an "uptick" in hate crimes in the Inland Empire for several reasons, according to Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino who tracks white supremacists. Among the reasons, he said: cheaper housing in rural areas draws not only ex-city dwellers but also ex-convicts who may have adopted racist ideology in prison.
In addition, racist gangs that manufacture drugs such as methamphetamine need privacy to operate, said Levin.
"The number of arrests indicate a significant level of activity but it is also an indicator that the authorities are reasonably on top of it," Levin said.
Crystal Farr agrees that authorities did take what happened to her son seriously. But she wishes they would arrest the teen who her son says yelled racial slurs last month.
"I feel my son's life is in danger," she said, "because this guy is out there here walking around."
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