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Acknowledging, not promoting, racism

Staff Editorial | Friday, February 1, 2008

It would be easy to pretend that the racist letters sent last week to hundreds of Notre Dame students were meaningless garbage. It would be easy to quickly toss them in the trash without a second glance – although their message would certainly continue to trouble many recipients.

It would be easy to do, but it wouldn’t solve anything.

Some people have questioned our decision to publish a prominent story about hateful, horribly misguided letters. And they have a point: The man who wrote them doesn’t deserve the stir he’s caused. At Ohio State, where students received similar hate mail last year – based on the name found in the letters, presumably from the same man – the school newspaper chose not to print a story, “for fear of perpetuating such racism,” according to a staff editorial.

Writing about – and thus acknowledging the existence of – racism doesn’t mean promoting it. It doesn’t mean presenting it as credible, and it also doesn’t mean perpetuating it. It means informing people that, sadly, hate speech does still exist. There are many injustices in this world that should make people uncomfortable. The reader has a right to know.

In writing about the letters, we chose to focus on the fact that they had been sent, and then the University’s response to them. We questioned how much – if anything – from the letter we should print, since we didn’t want to give the man a platform to spout hate speech. At the same time, we needed to give readers enough information to understand the story. We quoted minimally and paraphrased certain portions of the letter.

We also decided not to print the man’s name, since we had been unable to contact him and confirm that he was, in fact, the writer. His name was not in online phone directories. We weren’t sure if the name is real. We didn’t want to print what we couldn’t confirm.

It’s hard to cover a story started by a man who doesn’t deserve coverage. The alternative, however, is worse: to act like nothing happened. That’s not a solution. It’s ignorance.