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OUR OPINION: Dismayed by T-shirt wearers’ rank insensitivity

There was a time in American life when people told racist jokes and trafficked in racial stereotypes with abandon.

Those days are gone. And you know something? We’re all better off as a result. Sure, there are excesses — episodes in which political correctness gets carried way too far.

But for the most part, the facts that minstrel shows are a thing of the past, modern audiences cringe at American Indian characters’ “ughs!” and “hows!” in old movies, and people in general take more care with their language, make America a much better place.

And huge supermajorities across all ideological divides agree.

That’s why it’s so appalling to see a crowd of what appear to be UND students mocking this progress and reviving the crudest of stereotypes, seemingly ignorant of the pain such stereotypes have caused and the sacrifice of people who were beaten, jailed or even killed to bring about a less racist society.

Of course we’re referring to the T-shirts bearing the words “Siouxper drunk” and showing a cartoon Indian-head drinking from a beer bong. Photos that appeared to be taken at Saturday’s Springfest festival in Grand Forks showed young people wearing the T-shirts and posing in them with seeming pride.

That’s not OK. For it breaks one of the 10 Commandments of modern America, one whose power as recently as last month humbled the billionaire owner of an NBA team: Thou shalt not toy with deeply offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes.

The young people who wore the T-shirts likely mourn the passing of UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname and remain bitter that the nickname had to go. But here’s news for them: It was stunts such as theirs that helped force the nickname to go, because every episode — starting with the fraternity ice sculpture back in 1972 that portrayed a sexualized Sioux Indian image, down through the decades to the “Siouxper drunk” T-shirts over the weekend — made it impossible for nickname supporters to defend the atmosphere at UND.

“Honor? Understanding? Then how do you explain this?” opponents would say. And supporters would have no answer, because each successive episode so thoroughly undercut their claims.

The “Siouxper drunk” T-shirt is so raw that Herald editors debated whether to publish a photo of it being worn. The editors chose to publish the image, in large part because a newspaper’s duty is to answer questions, and simply describing the T-shirt would have left too many readers with questions about what the item looked like.

And our editors won’t be the only ones making such decisions. As of 3 p.m. Monday, Raw Story and Gawker had picked up the story, and the coverage in daily newspapers was on the rise.

Within a few days, it’ll likely have turned into another blitz of national coverage, another spate of bad publicity for UND — and another reminder to young people and others that if you play with the fire of racial stereotyping, you’re sure to get very badly burned.