Would 23-year-old Richard Collins III be alive today if he had been white and not black? That essentially is the question authorities must answer in determining whether to bring hate-crime charges against his alleged killer. But it is also a question that — more than ever in these unsettling times of rising racial tensions — the country as a whole would do well to confront.
Collins, an about-to-graduate Bowie State University student looking forward to a world of possibilities, was senselessly killed early Saturday morning while waiting with friends for an Uber on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland. Sean Urbanski, 22, a University of Maryland student, has been charged with murder in what police called a "totally unprovoked" attack. Collins was stabbed in the chest after apparently not following a screamed demand to step aside.
The FBI is investigating whether it was a hate crime; Urbanski is white and appears to have publicly identified with a Facebook group that posts racist material. An attorney for Urbanski said alcohol and substance abuse may have been involved. Prince George's State's Attorney Angela Alsobrooks is right to urge caution in speculating about possible motives. That the FBI has been called in shows authorities are serious about trying to determine if race was indeed a motive.
"This is an investigation that we cannot afford to get wrong," said Alsobrooks, acknowledging how the death of this young man, recently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, has unnerved the community. Adding to the anxiety is a spate of incidents in recent months in which white-supremacist fliers were posted at the University of Maryland, College Park and other campuses in the Washington region. How can such ugliness still exist? Did it play some role in the terrible events this past weekend that robbed this fine young man — and his family — of his life?
No matter the answers, Collins' murder is a senseless and horrible tragedy. But answers are needed. So, too, is continued effort against the bigotry that sadly still divides this country.
This editorial originally appeared in The Washington Post.