Imagine this: You’re on an airline flight and you watch a white man leave his seat to slap a black 19-month-old baby and then tells the baby’s mother: “Shut that (N-word) baby up.”

Sounds like a bad joke? It’s no joke. It actually happened two weeks ago on a Delta Airlines flight. Joe Rickey Hundley of Hayden, Idaho, was tired of listening to the baby crying and decided to apply his own brand of in-flight corporal punishment.

Hundley was arrested and charged with assaulting a minor on a flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta. Hundley slapped the toddler in the face with an open hand, according to the documents. The boy suffered a cut below his eye.

“He reeked of alcohol,” Jessica Bennett, 33, the boy’s mother, told a local television station. “He was belligerent, and I was uncomfortable.”

“And I said, `What did you say?’ because I couldn’t believe that he would say that,” Bennett said. “He fell onto my face and his mouth was in my ear and he said it again but even more hateful. And he’s on my face, so I pushed him away.”

Bennett and her husband are white, but the baby, Jonah, is black. The Bennetts adopted the baby.

This kind of premeditated bigotry is particularly troubling because it’s an act of violence on a child. And what a coward. Hundley decides to slap a baby who can’t defend himself? It’s a sorry commentary on the state of race relations in America at a time when there’s still so much hope for the future.

I heard a few people try to explain away Hundley’s violent behavior by saying he’s crazy, mentally unstable, and probably just snapped. And maybe he did. Or perhaps, just for the sake of argument, he may be a racist.

I don’t buy the “mental illness” argument when it comes to people like Hundley. Their actions against African Americans are sometimes deliberate, mean-spirited, unacceptable and, without a doubt, racist.

Sadly, Hundley and other like-minded conservative bigots comprise a growing share of our America. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are currently 1,018 known hate groups operating across the country, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen,white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others.

Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent, according to the Law Center.

“This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president,” the Law Center reported.

Is America becoming increasingly racist after the election of President Barack Obama? When I hear stories about a white man slapping a black baby and shouting the N-word at a kid, I’m reminded of just how comfortable some people are getting about expressing their racism in public.

Hundley turned himself in to police and he’s now out on bail. He’s also out of his job with AGC Aerospace and Defense, Composites Group. His attorney, however, insists that just because Hundley used the N-word, that he’s not a racist.

“This has escalated into a racist issue and I want to be clear he is not a racist,” Marsha Shein told reporters.

Really?

Hundley faces one year in jail. I hope the judge throws the book at him.

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