By Amy Crawford
The flyers first began popping up around Auburn University in April, around the time notorious white nationalist Richard Spencer visited the Alabama campus to give a well-attended speech about how white people are losing a “demographic struggle.”
“They were all over campus,” says Beth McDaniel, a fifth-year doctoral student who serves as president of Auburn’s Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on Campus chapter.
It was already a tense time at Auburn, which had lost a court battle after it attempted to prevent Spencer’s visit based on safety concerns. In a statement informing students, staff and faculty of the court’s decision, the provost’s office had declared, “Whether it’s offensive rhetoric, offensive flyers around campus, or inappropriate remarks on social media, we will not allow the efforts of individuals or groups to undermine Auburn’s core values of inclusion and diversity and challenge the ideals personified by the Auburn Creed.”
The notices were advertising something called the White Student Union, an unsanctioned group—with a website making it look sanctioned by the university—that seemed to position itself in opposition to official university clubs like the Black Student Union. While the leafleteers have been careful not to reveal their identities, the self-described president identified himself as a current student when he was interviewed anonymously by a British journalist last year.
“They’re using the Auburn University name, and they say that they are there to represent the needs of white Auburn students and faculty,” says McDaniel. Noting that the same British journalist interviewed members of the Auburn community who openly expressed support for the concept, she worries that a certain segment of the school’s student body—those who are disengaged politically and unlikely to think through the full implications of pitting white people against other groups—may be vulnerable to this propaganda.
“Like past white student unions, the Auburn White Student Union couches its mission statement in the language of love and egalitarianism. In reality, the organization promotes a false narrative about the forced replacement of white people and advocates for a white ethnostate,” explains Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. “The group’s ‘Pro-White Resources’ [website] page promotes white nationalist organizations such as American Renaissance, a ‘think-tank’ that’s primary mission is to publicize false statistics about black criminality and white victimhood.”
The Auburn community is not alone in facing threats of this kind. A study released this month by the Anti-Defamation League found that white supremacist propaganda at colleges across the United States increased by 258 percent between fall 2016 and fall 2017, with more than 200 campuses affected. And while the evidence often suggests that outside groups are responsible, advocates for tolerance and inclusion worry that white students across the nation’s campuses may be open to the messaging—and even to recruitment. It’s a danger that, according to Lecia Brooks, the SPLC’s Outreach Director, demands a new strategy from campus administrators who focus on diversity and inclusion: reaching out directly to disengaged white students in order to inoculate them against hate.
Brooks spends most of the year crisscrossing the country, visiting colleges and universities to speak on issues of social justice and working to support the network of SPLC on Campus clubs that has been taking on intolerance since 2015. Recently, she has added a new message to her talks.
“This really started with Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagements in Berkeley,” Brooks says, referring to clashes between fans of the alt-right provocateur and antifascist protesters in February 2017. “I was just offended. He was playing these young white men like a fiddle. They so enjoyed having a group and having some kind of presence and getting some kind of celebrity, and they’re vulnerable to these white nationalists’ messages about so-called ‘white genocide’ or ‘nobody cares about you.’ I realized, ‘Wow, we need to deliver the message to them that we care about them too.’ We can’t let them just fall prey to these liars.”
The responsibility, Brooks says, lies primarily with administrators who focus on diversity and inclusion—a specialty that has spread across campuses in recent years. It would be unfair to ask students of color, who are already burdened with more emotional labor than their more privileged peers, to do the work of reaching out to the sort of young white men who may be open to messages from the alt-right, she cautions. Still, it’s also important that diversity and inclusion offices not focus their work solely on supporting marginalized communities.
“I’ve been doing community-building work for a really long time,” Brooks says. “Anyone doing community-building should know that you really have to be intentional about bringing everybody in.”
That means, according to Brooks, in addition to fostering dialogue, administrators need to recruit adult mentors—white faculty and staff who understand the dynamics of racial oppression and power and privilege and can lead groups that talk about what it means to be white—and why it doesn’t have to mean embracing racism and rejecting diversity.
Bringing more white students “to the table” is something that has preoccupied Jabrina Robinson, dean of students at Siena College in upstate New York, ever since Brooks visited to give a talk and meet with administrators this past fall.
“We’ve noticed, over time, you often have the same groups coming to the table, and it’s kind of a preaching-to-the-choir type of audience,” Robinson says. “So we’re really looking at how we can better engage students who have not traditionally been as actively engaged in the conversation of diversity and inclusion—specifically, our white male students…. I think sometimes white males feel like conversations around diversity and inclusion are more about blaming. So how do we not do that, how do we really make everybody comfortable and willing to engage in the conversation so we can all grow?”
While Siena has not seen the same racially-charged incidents that have plagued other schools, Robinson knows that no college campus is immune to attracting the attention of white supremacists. Siena’s first step in counteracting their message will be to organize focus groups of white students to help administrators better understand how to bring them into the fold.
“We want to target students who traditionally don’t come or aren’t as actively engaged in these conversations,” she says. “Besides extra credit, what would attract you to conversations on these issues and what would engage you? Do you feel alienated if you see a poster that says, ‘Let’s talk about race,’ do you feel like you’re not actually supposed to come to this conversation? Do you feel that you’re not truly invited?”
Robinson’s goal is to complete the focus groups this semester. Once the results are compiled and analyzed, she says, it will help the college decide how to modify its diversity programming to include more of the student body.
“I think we’re doing things pretty well here,” she says. “But how can we do it better, and reach more people?”
Back at Auburn, the White Student Union retains its unofficial status—according to Haven Hart, the university’s assistant vice president for student development, it has never submitted any documents to become a recognized student organization. Still, an unknown number of members continue to post on the group’s blog and on social media—including with frequent retweets of messages from the white nationalist group Identity Europa.
Beth McDaniel is hopeful, however, that fostering dialogue with white students could help counteract the White Student Union’s propaganda. Through talks with administrators and SPLC on Campus programming, she wants to reach students where they are, rather than expecting them to take the initiative to get involved with diversity and inclusion efforts. That could mean getting professors or Greek organizations involved, visiting classrooms or asking white students to start hard conversations with their family, friends, classmates and dorm neighbors.
“It’s sometimes hard to go into these situations, because emotions are high on both sides,” she says. “But we need to be willing to actually try to help educate these students and realize that they’re not bad people. Many Auburn students come from white, middle- or upper-class communities that are very segregated—our society’s set up that way, and I think that a lot of students just don’t consider the experiences of other people and then fear any difference. But they’re a product of their environment, and people can change.”
Editor’s Note: This article was produced in partnership with the SPLC.
Amy Crawford is a freelance writer living in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @amymcrawf.
Cover photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.
Copyright © 500 Pens. February 2018.
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