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Akst: The strange letter I received

Published: Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The envelope arrived Feb. 1, and I knew it would be weird even before I opened it.

Journalism hasn’t made me (much) smarter, richer or better looking, but I do have a sharp sense of anomaly. Also, weird stuff happens around me frequently.

The security envelope was addressed to “Resident” in a shaky hand. The return address was a P.O. Box in a small town in Arkansas.

Inside was a two-page newsletter extolling “the largest Ku Klux Klan in existence today,” which “keeps alive the memory of the original Klansmen and the principles and traditions for which they risked their lives.”

Other than randomness, I don’t know why I received this mailing, because I’m about the last white guy who would endorse or join the KKK. I’m flawed, but I’m not a white supremacist.

Still, I have a wicked paranoid streak, so even though in my rational mind I knew this was just a badly executed direct mailing (bad in mindset, design, and spelling), I still freaked out.

Northern Illinois University prides itself in serving diverse populations, and I share that pride and obligation to try to help people advance their education regardless of their skin color or anything else.

So I need a story that the KKK wants to recruit me going around like I need a hole in the head.

This week, NIU fired its police chief, Donald Grady. Grady has alleged that his firing was racially motivated.

Many people have criticized Grady for “playing the race card,” but it’s also important to remember that no matter how enlightened we think we are, racism is still easy to find. Sometimes it finds you, like the letter I received.

So yes, there does remain a real, underground network of racists in America. But it doesn’t mean everything that happens comes back to the question of race, and we shouldn’t act as if that’s the case, either.

Combating racism is one of the reasons we celebrate African American History Month, which is February.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get beyond loathing, of self or others, but I’ll keep trying. Maybe, as Ozzy Osbourne sings, “it’s not too late … to learn how to love, and forget how to hate.”

One day, in Pampa, Texas in the late 1950s, Mom dropped off my older sisters at the theater for a matinee. She noticed two black girls by the pay window, obviously sad.

Mom realized they didn’t have enough money for tickets. She asked how much they needed. They told her, and Mom paid the difference so that the girls could see the show.

Nowadays, that story could easily be viewed as racist: The superior white lady stooping to help the poor black girls. But Mom, a product of the South and the Great Depression, told it for decades as a simple act of people being good to each other.

She felt good about how the girls smiled.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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