When hate meets hoax

In response to racist attacks, a group at St. Olaf College was created to address long-term issues of race

Published August 30, 2017 7:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Chet Strang)
(Getty/Chet Strang)

This originally appeared on ProPublica


For several months this spring, St. Olaf College, a private school of some 3,000 students in Northfield, Minnesota, was convulsed by a series of hate incidents. More than half a dozen racist notes were found across campus, including one slipped into a student’s book bag that said, “Go back to Africa.” Then, in late April, an African-American senior reported finding a typed threat on her car’s windshield only weeks before she was due to graduate.

“I am so glad that you are leaving soon,” the message read. “One less nigger that this school has to deal with. You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut up or I will shut you up.”

Hundreds of students protested. Classes were canceled for a day in an effort to organize discussions around race and diversity at the school. And the young woman who had found the latest note spoke out, telling students: “I think the big message is we shouldn’t let this happen again. The administration needs to do something that stops it indefinitely.”

Within 48 hours, the note left on the windshield was determined by school officials to have been fabricated, and St. Olaf was wracked once more, portrayed by some as the source of a hoax meant to advance a liberal agenda. “Another Day, Another Fake Hate Crime,” read a post on the conservative news outlet The Daily Caller. Other right-leaning outlets voiced similar views.

Today the nation’s attention is justly focused on the fatal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the disturbing ripples that continue to emanate from the chaos there last weekend. In that context, the events at St. Olaf would be easy to ignore. But they provide a subtle yet telling prism through which to view the nation’s continuing struggles with race and hate.

The consequences from the events at St. Olaf are hard to quantify. But what’s clear is that the phony claim has overshadowed the other incidents — eight in all — all of which appear to have been bona fide hate messages. They remain the subject of an investigation, according to Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson, with no hint that his officers are close to finding a culprit. The police do not regard the senior behind the ninth note as a suspect in the other cases.

Meanwhile, the fear spawned by the racist notes has combined with anger and disquiet over the hoax to leave a toxic cloud of uncertainty and distrust. “A few” prospective students withdrew their decisions to attend this fall, with parents saying they were too afraid or confused to come, according to Bruce King, assistant to the president for institutional diversity at St. Olaf. (During the fact-checking for this article, the school back-pedaled, asserting it has not seen “any indicators in our enrollment, advancement or retention data to indicate that the events in the spring negatively impacted our progress.”)

Many students remain aggrieved — despite winning a promise by the administration to increase minority admissions and to focus more on race in its education. That lingering anger, fueled by a sense that their grievances are viewed as dubious, suggests it will be difficult to restore a sense of tranquility.

Expressions of hate have been a topic of acute concern over the past year, stoked first by the often poisonous presidential campaign and most recently by the events in Charlottesville. Like many issues today, it is polarized, with opponents disagreeing on basic facts — and some even questioning the existence of such crimes.

An adviser to President Donald Trump recently launched a broad assault on the credibility of many hate crimes. When asked why Trump has not condemned the bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota — about 30 miles from St. Olaf — the adviser, Sebastian Gorka, told MSNBC it was possible the bombing was a “fake hate crime.”

“We’ve had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left,” Gorka said. “When people fake hate crimes in the last six months with some regularity, it’s wise to find out what exactly is going on before you make statements, when they could turn out to be not who you are expecting.”

One such hoax occurred in December when an 18-year-old Muslim woman reported being attacked by a group of men on a New York subway who called her a terrorist and tried to yank off her hijab. She later recanted and told police she had invented the story because she was having trouble with her family. In another episode around that time, swastikas and the words “HEIL TRUMP” written on a church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, were discovered to have been spray-painted by the organist of the church.

Fake hate crimes have a huge impact despite their rarity, said Ryan Lenz, senior investigative writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project. “There aren’t many people claiming fake hate crimes, but when they do, they make massive headlines,” he said. It takes just one fake report, Lenz said, “to undermine the legitimacy of other hate crimes.” An examination of what occurred at St. Olaf shows how that can happen.

Founded in 1874, St. Olaf is a liberal arts college located in Northfield, Minnesota, population 20,000. It’s a woodsy spot — between the campus and other college properties, St. Olaf has about 1,000 acres of forest and agricultural land — about 40 miles south of Minneapolis. Northfield is also home to Carleton College.

St. Olaf was established by Norwegian immigrants as a Lutheran institution and even today students are required to take a class on Christian theology. Alcohol is prohibited on campus. (Its best-known attendee was a fictional character who lasted a mere two weeks: Jay Gatsby.) The school boasts that students come from all 50 states and 80 foreign countries.

With 79.5 percent of its U.S. students identifying themselves as white, St. Olaf is actually more diverse than its home state, which is 85 percent white. Indeed, “multicultural” categories at St. Olaf have increased noticeably in recent years, growing from 14.8 percent in the fall of 2012, to 19.5 percent last fall. But even as Asian-American and Hispanic attendance has steadily risen, the percentage of African-American students has remained largely flat, around 2.2 percent. (African Americans make up 6 percent of Minnesota’s population.)

St. Olaf is the sort of place where people leave doors unlocked, which is part of its appeal, according to King, the school diversity administrator. A sense of safety and trust is palpable on campus, with students often leaving laptops, backpacks and other belongings unattended on tables in the cafeteria.

But the normally placid campus was torn during the presidential campaign. Students held anti-Trump rallies and vigils. Some Republican undergrads said they felt threatened by the atmosphere.

“Things were pretty tense because of the election,” said Emma Whitford, a St. Olaf student and executive editor of the school’s newspaper.

Against that charged backdrop, the first racist note was found in a custodial closet of a resident hall on Oct. 4. A slur was scribbled on the closet’s white board. Three days later, another slur was dropped into a comment box at an event called “Ask a Muslim Anything.”

More incidents followed in February, March and April. Each of the notes was handwritten, and expressed hatred but did not make threats.

St. Olaf did not report these occurrences to the police, and instead conducted its own investigation. The school hired a handwriting expert, reviewed security footage and interviewed students. (St. Olaf did not announce any findings and, after the alleged hoax, stepped aside in favor of the police.)

After each incident, small protests would pop up and people would rally. Some students said they felt suffocated and some began having anxiety attacks.

One group tried to channel the racist episodes into something positive. They formed the Collective for Change on The Hill (“the Hill” is the slang name for the college). Its goal was to create a long-term solution to the issue of race at St. Olaf and ease concerns for people of color.

Still, tensions would tend to subside as weeks passed after each episode.

Then came April 29. Samantha Wells, a student from Champaign, Illinois, posted on social media what she said she had found on her car windshield.

Two days later, hundreds flooded throughout the student commons and cafeteria to demonstrate against racism. All classes were canceled on May 1 as students and faculty alike joined in daylong sit-ins in support of Wells and the other victims. The Collective for Change on the Hill presented the administration with a list of demands. “I’m so thankful for everybody here who has supported me through these last few days,” Wells said at one rally.

But school officials had doubts almost immediately. For starters, the note that Wells made public didn’t resemble the others in that it was typewritten rather than handwritten. And suspicions mounted when Wells declined to file a police report.

At the time, she explained her choice this way, according to a police case file obtained by ProPublica: “I have decided that I am not going to be filing a report. I am graduating in 19 days and then leaving for Germany in June. I would rather not spend the end of my college career and my last month and a half in the U.S. worrying about an investigation.”

On May 10, the school announced that Wells had confessed that the note was a hoax. Reached via Facebook Messenger, Wells responded, “I am not allowed to speak on this story.” She declined to discuss specifics of the episode, but responded to a few questions about her experience as a St. Olaf student.

Wells described herself as currently in a state of academic limbo: She asserted that she graduated but didn’t attend the ceremony. Wells said St. Olaf will not issue her a diploma until next year. (St. Olaf’s administration would not comment about Wells’ case, beyond noting that she had been disciplined by the college in an unspecified manner.)

“Oh, and I got a few people telling me to kill myself, so that was fun, too,” Wells said in her exchange of messages with ProPublica.

Wells described a subtle but discernible experience of being an outsider as one of the few African Americans, which she said exacted an emotional toll. White students would seek her out, she said, as a kind of handy interpreter of racially sensitive material and interactions, a role she found “tiring.” As Wells puts it, “I felt safe but uncomfortable.”

It was that feeling, not unique to Wells, intensified by the anger of the presidential campaign, that exploded when the racist notes were discovered — only to be swept aside when the fake note seemingly undercut the legitimacy of the grievances.

Indeed, the atmosphere of distrust has extended in more than one direction: A handful of students deny that a hoax occurred. Said Alhouseini, a student activist, asserted that the school administration is using claims of a spurious note to hide, or raise doubts about, the other racist episodes. He accused some media organizations of being too eager to embrace the hoax angle without reporting thoroughly. “The question remains,” Alhouseini said, “if you’re focusing on that one incident or the three prominent ones that sparked a movement and making the claim of it being a hoax, where does that leave the rest of the attacks?”

Of course, time spent debating whether an event occurred will not be time spent addressing an underlying condition. “We did take a bit of a hit to the momentum of the movement when it comes to crowd/schoolwide support,” wrote Krysta Wetzel, a member of the Collective for Change on the Hill in an email to ProPublica. “[But] we still have another student whose car has been targeted. We still have a student who has received notes in her book bag. We still have alumni testimony that speak to the same issues we are experiencing now.”

Police chief Nelson said Wells’ note “distracted the college from some other things it was investigating that were legitimate concerns. What concerns me is that it pulled away from their investigation. It makes it harder to find the truth.”King and other officials at St. Olaf aren’t waiting for the results of the police investigation. They say they remain committed to improving conditions. For her part, Wetzel, the student activist, vowed to continue her campaign when the school year begins, and the events of Charlottesville seem likely to keep race and hate in the forefront of students’ consciousness.

In May the school agreed to a list of demands it negotiated with the Collective to foster a more inclusive environment. The school has pledged to increase the “recruitment and retention of Indigenous, Black/African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American, Multiracial, and Non-American faculty and staff members,” according to the agreement. The school also agreed to adapt its general education requirements to include more study of class, gender, race and identity.

Creating a sense of inclusion won’t be easy, King acknowledged. “I think if you look past [the Collective’s] demands, if you look past the notes, if you look past the back and forth, how do you take a place like St. Olaf or the United States of America and create it so everyone feels like a part of it?” he said. “That’s our challenge.”

By Kiara Alfonseca

MORE FROM Kiara Alfonseca

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Documenting Hate Minnesota Propublica Racial Issues Racism Racist Notes St. Olaf College