Many of the letters I got this year accused me of being a racist.
A Baltimore woman expressed this view succinctly: "You are a racist and all you write is racial against whites," she wrote me last week.
"I don't see how the Sun Papers allows this," the woman continued. "I wish they would get rid of you. You write hate and it should not be allowed."
In September, another woman wrote, "Mr. Hall continually preaches about racism. Unfortunately, while doing this he lets the world see that he himself is a racist.
"Not only is he a racist but he is the worst kind of all. While bringing so-called black oppression to the front lines he degrades and humiliates other races."
And, in February, "Shame on you," wrote some guy from Connecticut, "for abusing your position as a journalist to espouse racism and bigotry."
Now, I know I shouldn't let this type of thing bother me. My conscience is clear and that's supposed to be enough.
But it does bother me.
In fact, I take the charge very, very seriously.
I take the charge so seriously because it is an ugly accusation yet an awful lot of people have leveled it at me not only in letters but on radio talk shows and in private conversations.
"I travel a lot so I don't get to read your column regularly," said a guy I play basketball with. "But people who read it tell me you're a racist."
"So, are you?"
I'm supposed to be a communicator, right? And implicit in any attempt at communication is the possibility of being misunderstood.
So I accept that as part of the job.
But call me a racist, a hate-monger, an espouser of bigotry and a degrader of other races and I'm struck dumb with horror.
So here's what I did during the holiday season. I took out my columns for 1990. I read them carefully. I read them again. I searched for the why behind the ugly charge of racism.
This is what I found.
In 1990, I wrote about race more often than in any other year since I became a columnist. When I did, I took sides. And when I took sides, I incensed many readers.
In January, I wrote about the now infamous case of Charles Stuart, who had told Boston police that his wife had been murdered by a black man wearing a black jogging suit and who spoke in, of all things, a raspy voice.
I blasted syndicated columnist Jimmy Breslin for a bigoted tirade directed at an Asian-American colleague at New York Newsday, and I blasted Japanese officials for their continued bigoted remarks about black Americans. Then I blasted some blacks here for their bigotry against Korean-Americans.
Throughout the spring, I wrote about the persecution of Washington Mayor Marion Barry. And throughout the fall, I attacked President Bush's less-than-honest rationale for opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1990, legislation which he eventually vetoed on those same less-than-honest grounds.
On several occasions this year, people stepped forward claiming to be victims of discrimination and I let my column be a vehicle for their complaints.
Finally, last month, I wrote a sympathetic piece about a young black man awaiting parole after he killed two white police officers 12 years ago.
I found a common thread in each of these cases that somehow gets lost in the immediate, black-versus-white-versus-whatever furor.
In each case, the supposed victims simply wanted to be treated as all others are treated, whether the victims were the black community in Boston complaining about an over-zealous response by police, a black worker shut off from the fast track, or a Korean-American grocer just trying to make a living.
In each of the disputes, a member of a minority group was simply seeking the rights commonly afforded everyone else.
They didn't like raising race as an issue, although many whites apparently think minorities fall back on race as a crutch, an easy out. Most minorities want to rise or fall on their individual merits.
And I'm like everybody else. I don't like raising the issue, either. But my job is to report what I see, whether it makes people angry or not.
In 1990, events compelled me to write about race more than I ever have before.
I hope, I hope, I hope . . . that events in 1991 are such that I never have to raise the issue again.