White Nationalists Increasingly Target Colleges With Recruitment Propaganda

Students are fighting back against white nationalist recruitment efforts on their campuses.

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American University is a small campus tucked into a leafy, suburban neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Students hang out and study on the quad, which is so peaceful you almost forget you're in the nation's discordant capital. But under the surface, there's a seething anger.
The school has been the setting of racist attacks in recent years that help tell the story of an alarming rise in white nationalist recruiting on college campuses nationwide. In the most recent, in January, someone posted anti-immigrant flyers reading, "NO means NO! #MyBordersMyChoice," an unfortunate play on the pro-choice hashtag #MyBodyMyChoice, around campus. The flyers contained links to The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that advocates for the genocide of Jews.
In some ways, the free-speech debate about these types of flyers is the same one that’s been happening in American colleges for years. But in 2018, after the election of Donald Trump, and clashes over right-wing hate-mongers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer speaking at universities — and magnified under the lens of the internet — the stakes feel higher.
Statistics confirm this. Between March 2016 and October 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the nation's largest hate-group watchdog, tracked 329 flyering incidents on 241 college campuses across the U.S., most of them perpetrated by people from outside the school. They're members of groups like Vanguard America and Identity Evropa, organizations that believe white people are disenfranchised and that the U.S. should be an exclusively white country, and they are undertaking an unprecedented effort to recruit on college campuses. Flyering is a way for their new converts to show their commitment while staying anonymous. Both groups were involved in the Charlottesville rally in August 2017; James Fields, who plowed his car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, was seen marching with Vanguard America.
The Anti-Defamation League, which also tracks hate groups, reported a 258% growth in white supremacist recruitment efforts on college campuses between fall 2016 (41 incidents) and fall 2017 (147 incidents).
In our examination of dozens of schools, we've seen a similar scenario play out in colleges and universities from California to Texas to New York: Perpetrators put up flyers that target Black people, immigrants, or other groups. Students ask the administration to take concrete action. The administration — usually predominantly made up of white men — responds with a carefully worded statement about how the school doesn't tolerate discrimination of any sort, but doesn't take further action. Maybe there's a town hall or a roundtable. Students still feel like their true concerns aren't heard. Often, the provocations continue.
At AU, a politically active school in the nation's capital, the administration's response has been more proactive than most — at least recently. Maybe it’s because the university was the site of quite likely the most publicized racist attack on a college campus in recent years: In May 2017, senior Taylor Dumpson, who is African-American, was targeted on the day she took office as student body president when somebody hung bananas from nooses in three places on campus and scrawled messages like "Harambe bait" on them. The incident was investigated by the FBI and categorized as a hate crime. Dumpson resigned in January 2018.
The same month the #MyBordersMyChoice flyers were spotted, the university introduced its ambitious diversity and inclusion plan, which aims to invest $121 million over two years into programs like cultural-competence and bias training for all community members, hiring more diverse faculty, and support for the new Anti-Racist Policy and Research Center.
But it was right after the opening of the Anti-Racist Center in September 2017 that the university experienced more racist attacks. The night Dr. Ibram X. Kendi made a speech to introduce the center, Confederate-flag flyers with cotton stalks affixed to them that read "Huzzah for Dixie" were found on campus. Authorities said they believe the perpetrator is a white man who is about 40 years old.
Senior Zoey Jordan Salsbury told Refinery29 it was "terrifying to me as a Jewish student" that the anti-immigrant flyers were connected to The Daily Stormer, which targets Jewish people.
She’s also terrified by the apathy of some of the other students. "There are students who say it's not that big of a deal, whispering because if people know they say that it's not okay... They're mostly white students who don't have intersections with other groups." For her part, she says she tries to be supportive to peers who are part of marginalized groups, inviting people who live off-campus and are in distress to hang out in her on-campus apartment.
Anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. surged by almost 60% in 2017, the ADL found, due in large part to the fact that the number on college campuses nearly doubled. Colleges saw a total of 204 incidents in 2017, compared to 108 in 2016.
According to AU’s plan for inclusive excellence, only 33% of Black students and 60% of Asian and Latinx students say they feel safe on campus, compared to 71% of white students. Students of color also feel "less physically and emotionally safe than their white counterparts and see few spaces designed by and for underrepresented students to hold meetings, to study together, and to socialize." They say there is a "consistent pattern of derogatory comments" aimed at people of color and that AU is generally not responsive to student concerns around discrimination. By including these stats, the university is taking a step in the direction of addressing the issues head-on — but there is more to be done, according to students we’ve spoken with.
Romina Martin, a sophomore at AU and the president of the school's chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said she thinks the school's initial response to the flyers wasn't sufficient, which put a lot of students off. The administration, for example, didn't provide information about resources on campus like counseling that could help the community feel safe.
"A lot of the student body, we’re immigrants, our parents are immigrants. The reaction of the school made it feel like our backgrounds, our stories didn’t matter," said Martin, who moved to the U.S. from Lima, Peru, in elementary school. She also questioned why the public safety department couldn't identify and find the perpetrator. “Now they post flyers, but what are they going to do next? Are we really safe on campus?”
Dr. Fanta Aw, the Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence (the latter part of the title was added very recently), addressed safety in an interview with Refinery29. "I think often our immediate response is to think about physical safety, but all too often we underestimate the level of emotional safety," she said. "Emotional safety comes from feeling a sense of belonging wherever you are, feeling like wherever you're walking that someone is not questioning, ‘Do you really belong here? Do you have the intellectual ability to be here?’ ... I would say that our students are reflecting...a national angst that's going on."
She spoke about what’s been called “collective trauma” in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. "When they talk about safety, it is not just on AU campus... But it is reflective of how they feel about where things are going in the society at large, and the campus is a microcosm of that."

"Take My Trump Trash"

If students from marginalized groups in Washington, D.C., where 91% of residents voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, are seeing symptoms of post-election hostility, then at the University of South Carolina it’s a full-blown disease.
"My friend got garbage thrown at her and called, 'Take my Trump trash, n-----,'” sophomore Maya Queenan said, according to the Daily Gamecock. Queenan said this at a town hall held in the aftermath of racist flyers being found in the building that houses the African-American Studies Program one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year.
The university hasn’t identified the person who posted the flyers (though officials did spot a white male in his mid-40s who they don't believe is connected to the campus), director of public relations Jeff Stensland told Refinery29, but officials have since "seen evidence that it may not be an isolated case and could be part of a larger effort by a racist group." He said to his knowledge, the university has not identified racist groups actively recruiting students.
Since then, Stensland said, the campus has held multiple events, including a #NotOnOurCampus rally. At this rally, university president Harris Pastides made clear that hateful speech is not welcome at the school: “We will confront you. We will take action against you.”
In addition to being racist, some of the flyers blamed African-Americans for voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary elections. They read, "We endured a year of Blumpf instead of enjoying one of Bernie because you DUMB BLACK ASSES just pull the lever for whoever the party machine says to," and, "All this bullshit about King when you simpletons can't even pick a candidate properly. You stupid monkeys handed Trump the White House the minute you handed Hillary the nomination!"
Clinton swept South Carolina in 2016's primary, with 73.5% of the vote versus Bernie Sanders' 26%. With African-Americans, she enjoyed an 87 to 13 margin.
"The flyers included racial slurs in big, bolded font, but the majority of the posters’ content was in a font that was more difficult to read, and those words were a direct indictment of the infighting of the Democratic Party," Logan Martin, a sophomore and president of the campus College Democrats, told Refinery29. "As the party of diversity, we must also be the party of inclusion, and that means accepting others’ decisions to vote for candidates with whom we disagree."
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Abby Beauregard, the communications director for the College Dems, told Refinery29 that she's not surprised about the expression of racist attitudes or the anti-Hillary aggression, both of which she's seen on campus before.
"Within groups of people I know, there was a lot of outrage and disgust" in response to the flyers, she said. "This is a very conservative campus in a lot of ways, so it's not unheard of for people to make comments like that — but it's another thing to see it in writing on the walls."
She said the fact that the school is in the South and has a big Greek system often seems to “enable” people to make these statements. The story of Harley Barber, a girl from New Jersey who was expelled from the University of Alabama for posting Instagrams in which she repeatedly says the n-word, comes to mind: In one of the videos, she asserts that she’s "in the South now, bitch," so she can say whatever she wants.
"There's a culture of saying things that aren't PC and trying to get a rise out of people of color and women," said Beauregard. "I think the university has done its best to integrate us, but we still are a fairly segregated campus and the only thing that would change that is if student attitudes change, and we're getting better at it but we're just not there."
At Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN, another large public university in the South, the atmosphere can be just as tense. "We're all used to micro-aggressions. There's definitely racial tension," Raven Harmon, a senior and the vice president of the Black Student Union, which she has recently helped relaunch, told Refinery29, adding that in many of her classes there are very few Black students and some white students treat them as though they are less intelligent. "We definitely have class discussions where people show their true colors."
A perpetrator stuck posters from Vanguard America that read "Protect White Families" on top of Black History Month posters on this campus in Murfreesboro, TN, earlier this year. Harmon said the BSU regularly meets with the school president to discuss incidents like this, but not much has come out of the discussions yet. She recalled how scary it was when white nationalists held a White Lives Matter rally in Murfreesboro last fall. In the end, counter-protestors outnumbered them by about 600.
At public universities like USC and MTSU, postings like this are generally protected by the First Amendment. Michelle Deutchman, National Campus Counsel at the ADL, said that despite their serious impact, it's unlikely for racist or anti-immigrant flyers to be considered criminal activity by law. "Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment — some would say that's a cornerstone of our democracy," she said, adding that a university is not in a position to make "content-based restrictions," only "content-neutral" ones.
Despite all the recent hand-wringing about free speech on college campuses, studies actually show that support for free speech is highest among liberals and the college-educated — though you wouldn’t know it from the way certain writers on the right have framed the debate. Bari Weiss’ “We’re All Fascists Now,” in which she argued that "leftists" are attacking free speech, and David Brooks accusing students of "tribalism" and suppressing opposing viewpoints on campus both come to mind. Incidents like Yiannopoulos' visit to Berkeley last year, when counter-protestors caused hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of damage to the campus opposing his anti-trans, anti-immigrant rhetoric, have become sticking points for conservatives. But in fact, people on the right are overall less supportive of free speech.

"It Makes It Hard To Concentrate On School"

At Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA, a large, suburban, public university, racist flyers were hung the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. They mentioned “statistics” about assault, welfare, AIDS, homicide, and domestic violence in Black communities as compared to white communities. A month before, flyers targeting DREAMers and undocumented immigrants were found on campus.
Isabella Paoletto, a third-year journalism student and activist, told Refinery29 that racist rhetoric and flyers are a common occurrence at Cal Poly, which, like all the others in this story, is a predominantly white school.
"We’ve also had multiple cases of individuals on campus handing out pro-Nazi propaganda flyers with words like 'American Nazi party' and 'Symbol of White Power' on them," she said. "Many fraternities on campus have also contributed to the racist ambiance of campus, like in 2013 when a frat hosted a 'Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos' party [Ed. note: The school found that this party didn’t violate any campus policies], or when the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity posted a photo in front of their frat in culturally and ethnically insensitive costumes, or in 2008 when a Confederate flag and a noose were found on campus housing."
After the flyering incident this year, the university issued a statement. "As we have said in the past, hate has no place at Cal Poly," university President Jeffrey Armstrong wrote in an email to the community. “We condemn any act intended to intimidate, frighten, harass, or hurt a member of our campus community. Such actions are borne of ignorance and cowardice and seek to promote division and false narratives rather than empathy and thoughtful discussion — the very ideals for which our university stands.”
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But the school didn’t go further than that. “Every time an incident like this happens the president of Cal Poly sends out an email basically saying that some students are offended about the incident and that he apologizes and it doesn’t reflect what Cal Poly is about,” said Paoletto. “However, once this email is sent out the topic is never discussed or addressed by administration again.”
Despite the denunciations, the university emphasized that the flyers are free speech protected by the First Amendment.
"To be clear: The university does not support the content of these postings. And we stand with members of our campus community who find the content abhorrent," Matt Lazier, the university's media relations director, told Refinery29. "Nevertheless, the content of the postings is protected as free speech by the First Amendment. As a public institution, Cal Poly cannot engage in censorship of any form."
While the flyers are legal, this begs the question: What responsibility do schools have to use, as Deutchman put it, “counter speech,” to send the message that they don’t tolerate racism? As she suggested, universities have a lot of options to raise their voices higher than those of bigots: Students and administrators can hold anti-racist rallies and town halls, offer counseling services, educate the community about white supremacy, and encourage students to use their First Amendment rights to promote diversity.
Said Stensland, from the University of South Carolina: “Part of the discussion we’ve had with students is that while we abhor certain messages, there are First Amendment protections that often come into play. We do not advocate silencing speech, but instead working to ensure hateful speech does not carry the day. The flyers were a special case because we do have rules about where flyers can be posted, and these were posted in unauthorized locations.” (In some locations, posting flyers is vandalism.)
Some schools have started taking these steps, however imperfectly. But a lot of students are tired of the emotional labor it takes to have to constantly speak up for their safety and wish their very right to exist weren't threatened. When the “protected speech” comes from organizations that advocate for killing minorities and are inspired by Nazis, it’s not hard to see why many are angry at their universities for not doing enough.
Especially in light of these stats: The number of U.S. hate groups rose in 2017, during Donald Trump's first year in office, and has surged 20% since 2014, according to the SPLC. Among the more than 600 U.S. white supremacist groups, neo-Nazi organizations rose from 99 to 121.
At academic institutions, racial-harassment complaints have steadily increased from 2009 to 2016, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. In 2009, the office had 96 complaints from post-secondary institutions while in 2016, there were 198.
Lecia Brooks, outreach director at the SPLC, says the best way to combat these efforts is with education: identifying these groups as white nationalists and supremacists, and protesting in peaceful ways.
"I think it's important for the administration to ensure that it cares about the students and ensure their safety: open up workshops and counseling centers, do whatever they can to ensure that their safety is a number-one concern,” she said. “Often, they'll just put out a nothing statement, saying, 'This doesn't conform with the values of our university,' and they do nothing to support the students."
Brooks, who travels to colleges around the country educating students and faculty on white supremacy, added: "I want to continue to talk about how we can and should push back against the recruitment of white supremacists on college campuses. I want to educate students and prepare and train them in the tradition of the non-violent civil rights movement. That's what we hope to do through our campus groups, too. It's important that people stand up and that they do it non-violently."
So, that’s where we are: Posting a flyer calling Black people monkeys is “protected” freedom of expression but clearly “abhorrent.” Students have become “overly sensitive” and “PC” in their hostility toward speakers who despise their very humanity. And universities, while making a valiant effort, by many accounts are still not forceful enough in their actions against those who try to force their white supremacists beliefs on institutions of learning.
Paoletto said that she has at least five friends who have wanted to drop out of Cal Poly or transfer to another school because of the racism on campus and the administration's non-response — herself included. "It makes it hard to concentrate on school and enjoy your college experience when you are constantly made to feel out of place and unwelcome, no matter how deserving you are to be there, too."
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