White Supremacists go to College: New Tactics, Same Old White Supremacy

By Abby Ferber

The landscape of organized white supremacy has dramatically changed since I conducted my research for White Man Falling: Race, Gender and White Supremacy in the 1990s. At that time, most organized white supremacist groups were isolated, disconnected, disorganized, and difficult to follow. They seemed to be easily identifiable as “extremist.” Since that time, the broad contours of White supremacist ideology appears to be the only thing unchanged.

The backlash to the Presidency of Obama; the campaign, rallies, election and policies of Trump; the rise of social media and the proliferation of far-right media outlets have all provided fertile ground for change and growth. The Trump campaign’s rallies and many promises, such as a wall along parts of our Southern border, contributed to increased synergy among individuals and groups at different points along the continuum of white supremacy. In the year preceding Trump’s election, there was a decrease in organized white supremacist groups holding their own rallies and gatherings because Trump rallies served that purpose. This was followed by post-inauguration statements, tweets, appointees, and policies, such as immigration bans targeting Muslims; banning transgender people from the military, etc. These have all gone a long way in seeding and uniting a much more overt right wing around a shared white supremacist ideology.

The protest in Charlottesville in August 2017 made this undeniably visible. The march drew organized white supremacist hate groups, members of the “alt-right” (who also espouse most of the basics of the white supremacist worldview and are now classified as a white supremacist movement) and a large number of other white, mostly male, protesters under the prescient banner of “Unite the Right.”

Underlying this unification is the glue of white supremacist beliefs: The marchers’ anti-semitic chants refer to the white supremacist belief that Jews are the masterminds behind a conspiracy to annihilate the white race. The marchers were mostly men because the white supremacist worldview defines men as superior and the rightful leaders in “taking back” the white, Christian nation from a range of “usurpers” (such as undocumented immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, etc.).

Another significant factor mainstreaming the tenets of white supremacy is the availability and ease of access to a proliferation of social media platforms. Racist white nationalism online has skyrocketed in a short period of time, and across a continuum of political sites. Besides the traditional organized white supremacist Websites, we now have sites like The Daily Stormer, The Blaze, InfoWars, Breitbart and many, many more.

There are a number of specialized sites targeting higher education institutions and faculty, such as Professor Watch, Campus Watch and Campus Reform. Many sites are aggregators (even if they also publish original pieces), so that stories that appear in Campus reform one day end up reprinted on The Blaze and Fox news the next. Some become the subject of stories in news outlets usually considered “mainstream,” which creates a perception that the alt-right stories are accurate and legitimate journalistic reports. In other cases, opinion pieces originate in campus newspapers. Remember Tal Fortgang? It is the right-wing media machine that then takes a student newspaper article and shepherds it all the way across the continuum until it lands in Time magazine.

In terms of higher education, students (on a mission, and sometimes paid) seek to find soundbites and minutiae they can take out of context and turn into pieces framed as “political correctness,” or attacks on students’ free speech. These stories are instantly spread by other right-wing social media, bringing attention and public outrage aimed at faculty, classes, and campuses.

Social media attacks on faculty are becoming more common and more damaging. Networks of trolls, organized by the alt-right, are directed to target specific faculty, often those highlighted in these fake news stories, including those that do not get public exposure. All faculty, but especially people of color that teach about racism, white privilege or challenge white supremacist ideology, are at risk.  A faculty member may receive hundreds of emails per day ranging from the “shame on you” variety, to “I know where you live,” “I know you have children who attend [fill in the blank] school,” to graphic threats of rape and dismemberment directed towards women.

The public may be more familiar with the controversies surrounding efforts to bring alt-right speakers to campuses. These spectacles bring greater public scrutiny and debate and are attempts to challenge Universities’ commitment to free speech while spreading hate.  On the other hand, the hate speech and vitriolic attacks on faculty are kept as quiet as possible by Universities and colleges, despite the fact that they represent a far more significant threat to free speech and academic freedom. The purpose of these insidious attacks is to silence faculty through self-censorship and eliminate specific topics from the curriculum.

Many faculty reports receiving almost no support from administrators, feel blamed as trouble-makers, are asked to change the titles of events and classes, and more. The impact of these attacks on faculty can be traumatic. Unless there is a physical threat, administrators often leave faculty on their own to cope with hundreds of hateful emails and veiled threats to identify any “real” threats. Too often, academic institutions end up adding to the damaging impact of these attacks on the faculty.

In many cases, whether intentional or not, Universities abet this agenda. They leave these individuals vulnerable and without either private or public support, leading some faculty to rethink what they teach, and where. In other cases, faculty positions and courses that support diversity, equity and justice are simply eliminated, as I am witnessing on my own campus. These too must be interrogated within the context of these larger historical and cultural shifts advancing white supremacy. Any moves to decrease diversity programming, historically long-fought-for programs in disciplines such as women’s and ethnic studies, or to defund professional development, extra-curricular programming, and other efforts that advance a University’s commitment to fostering an inclusive campus climate is a grave mistake. These are not all isolated and independent battles; if we consider their collective impact, they are moments in a more extensive war. Whether we like it or not, we have all been drafted. It is time for all institutions of higher education to look at the big picture, create a proactive, comprehensive plan that implements their written commitments to value diversity and inclusion and take a strong stand.

Author’s note: This piece discusses one specific manifestation of white supremacist ideology, which works in tandem with systemic racism.

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