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Jack Russell Weinstein, Forum News Service, Published February 28 2013

COLUMN: Why the KKK hood incident at Red River HS was so disturbing

GRAND FORKS — I’d like to explain why people got so upset at the Red River High School students who wore KKK hoods at the state hockey tournament.

I understand those who tried to minimize the incident to protect students; we need our children to have safe places to make mistakes. But this wasn’t a simple mistake or prank, and it was more than an unseen tripwire.

It was jabbing a knife into the heart of this community, and it was made worse by those who tried to dismiss it.

Let’s imagine Red River High School was playing a military academy, and two students tore up an American flag, not for political reasons, but just to mess with the cadets. The community would be outraged. There would be calls for expulsion and a condemnation of the parents.

Or worse, let’s pretend Red River High School was playing a Catholic school and two students desecrated a crucifix — again, just to mess with their opponents. The ferocity of reaction would be immeasurable.

The flag and the crucifix are symbols that people in this community still feel deep connections to, but the KKK hood has less power. It shouldn’t. This was a virtually all-white crowd, in a virtually all-white community, at a virtually all-white sport, using a symbol of racism against a high school named after integration.

We shouldn’t forget that the Klan lynched, raped and terrorized countless people, and almost every perpetrator avoided punishment. Here in North Dakota, the Klan was used to drive away Catholics as well as blacks and Jews.

When Grand Forks residents are silent about this, they dishonor the victims and themselves.

Red River High School now tells us that the students wore hoods for 30 seconds and were pressured to remove them. This revisionism isn’t credible; it’s wishful thinking. It’s also irrelevant, because what should concern us more are the excuses the community made afterward: they’re just kids, it was a prank, they don’t understand history.

Fourteen-year-olds may not understand historical subtleties, but they know right from wrong. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have understood that this was a way to infuriate their opponents, and they wouldn’t have been able to research and make KKK clothing in the first place.

By pretending these students don’t know better, the community is, in effect, standing in hoods alongside them.

Eight years ago, swastikas were drawn on the sidewalk in front of my house. My wife was pregnant, and we were out of town. Neighbors called us.

Not knowing the extent of the threat, we called the police, but the dispatcher refused to help. I had to call the captain at home to get assistance. (I work with his wife.)

The perpetrators turned out to be middle-school students who live blocks away from us, a family whom we never met.

The issue for us was not so much the students as it was that the neighborhood was talking about us, the only Jewish family, and that they were doing it so virulently that even children knew whom to target.

The danger was not just in the hostility against a pregnant woman and her husband, but in the outcasts we had unknowingly become. The children acted stupidly, but the neighborhood was guilty.

If we don’t demand a citywide response to the hockey incident, then we ignore the true situation. The students weren’t just speaking for themselves; they were speaking for a group of older people disciplined enough to keep their more hideous beliefs hidden.

If we don’t teach everyone — children and adults alike — that these attitudes are immoral, we have no right to call ourselves a community at all.

Weinstein is professor of philosophy and director of the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life at the University of North Dakota.