Two hours later, Cafferty got a call from his supervisor, who told him that somebody had seen Cafferty making a white-supremacist hand gesture, and had posted photographic evidence on Twitter. (Likely unbeknownst to most Americans, the alt-right has appropriated a version of the “okay” symbol for their own purposes because it looks like the initials for “white power”; this is the symbol the man accused Cafferty of making when his hand was dangling out of his truck.) Dozens of people were now calling the company to demand Cafferty’s dismissal.
By the end of the call, Cafferty had been suspended without pay. By the end of the day, his colleagues had come by his house to pick up the company truck. By the following Monday, he was out of a job.
Cafferty is a big, calm, muscular man in his 40s who was born and raised in a diverse working-class community on the south side of San Diego. On his father’s side, he has both Irish and Mexican ancestors. His mother is Latina. “If I was a white supremacist,” he told me, “I would literally have to hate 75 percent of myself.”
After finishing high school, Cafferty bounced from one physically demanding and poorly paid job to another. For most of his life, he had trouble making ends meet. But his new job was set to change all that. “I was very proud of my position,” Cafferty told me. “It was the first time in my life where I wasn’t living check to check.”
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When Cafferty was wrongly accused of being a white supremacist, he fought hard to keep his job. He said he explained to the people carrying out the investigation—all of them were white—that he had no earthly idea some racists had tried to appropriate the “okay” sign for their sinister purposes. He told them he simply wasn’t interested in politics; as far as he remembered, he had not voted in a single election. Eventually, he told me, “I got so desperate, I was showing them the color of my skin. I was saying, ‘Look at me. Look at the color of my skin.’”
It was all to no avail. SDG&E, Cafferty told me, never presented him with any evidence that he held racist beliefs or knew about the meaning of his gesture. Yet he was terminated.
The loss of his job has left Cafferty shaken. A few days ago, he spoke with a mental-health counselor for the first time in his life. “A man can learn from making a mistake,” he told me. “But what am I supposed to learn from this? It’s like I was struck by lightning.”
After Cafferty told his side of the story, the initial social-media vilification he had experienced gave way to a kind of embarrassed silence. The man who had posted a picture of the encounter on Twitter deleted his account and admitted to Priya Sridhar, a local news reporter, that he “may have gotten ‘spun up’ about the interaction and misinterpreted it.” Repeatedly asked whether they had any evidence that Cafferty was a white supremacist, had known the meaning of the inverted “okay” symbol, or had previously been reprimanded for his performance, SDG&E refused to answer. Nor did the company respond to my request for confirmation that the team that had investigated Cafferty was all white.