The Anti-Defamation League has released and updated a troubling study about the rise of white supremacist messaging on America’s college campuses. Incidents tripled in 2017 compared to the prior year. While the total number of incidents in 2017 was only 290, the increase from 147 in 2016 should serve as a wake-up call to address a new and insidious form of white supremacist rhetoric.
By far the most active group spreading these messages was Identity Evropa, a self-described “fraternal organization for people of European heritage located in the United States.” According to the study, this group “use[s] propaganda that avoids recognizable white supremacist imagery and language. For example, IE has used black and white images of classical sculptures, including Michelangelo’s David or Nicolas Coustou’s Julius Caesar.” The messages on these images, in the form of posters or fliers, say things like, “The future belongs to us.”
This is not exactly the white supremacy of the Klu Klux Klan. The new breed of racists has traded in white sheets for collared shirts and khakis. The best known of these new racist activists is Duke University-educated Richard Spencer, who not only presents himself as a reasonable and friendly guy, but co-opts the techniques of progressive identity politics in some cases.
Recently he commended Cornel West’s attacks on Ta-Nehisi Coates. West argued Coates was fetishizing white supremacy and promoting a neo-liberal agenda, to which Spencer tweeted, “He’s not wrong.” In fact, Spencer’s safe-sounding organization, the National Policy Institute, also attacks neo-liberalism, corporate capitalism, and aggressive U.S. military and foreign policy. Identity Evropa is connected to NPI.
Why College Campuses?
College campuses have become the powder keg of race relations in the United States. It was, after all, protests on the campus of the University of Missouri that helped lead to NFL players’ protests over the past two seasons. The necktie racists of groups like Identity Evropa are taking advantage of a divisive approach to anti-racist pedagogy that may be disaffecting an increasing number of young white men.
There is an almost endless parade of academic hot-takes on race that range from dumb to dangerous. The dumb takes include ideas that things like yoga or ethnic food are racist. The dangerous include increasing demands for mandatory courses expressing progressive racial ideology, calls for segregation, and a desire to redress historical inequality by valuing voices and opinions based on the speaker’s race.
All of this provides opportunity for dosing out the evil, insidious snake oil of white supremacy on our country’s campuses. Not included in the ADL study is the increasing use of fliers and posters saying, “It’s okay to be white.” The phrase may sound innocuous, but it can be an opening to dangerous messaging.
The Spencers of the world say: “Hey, I’m not racist, I’m just realistic. They are tearing down your statues, nobody else’s; They are taking your history out of the textbooks, nobody else’s; They are telling you, young white man, to shut up, and nobody else.”
The debate over whether progressive racial ideologies such as white privilege and cultural appropriation on campuses has gone too far is an important one, and worth having. But it is unlikely to abate the rise of white supremacy on campus in the short term. To do that, we need a different approach.
Take the Racists Seriously
Last month, a Republican member of Congress invited Holocaust denier Chuck Johnson to be his guest at the State of the Union address. Many, including the congressman, shrugged it off, saying, well, he didn’t know, it was an honest mistake. That’s just not good enough. The coin of the white supremacist realm is credibility. A photo of Johnson at the SOTU above one of his vile screeds would be very dangerous — it normalizes his views in a powerful way.
What conservatives must begin to do is to actively, not reactively, seek out and oppose those who spread hatred to college students. It is not enough to say, “These people are on the fringe, let’s laugh it off.” Instead, conservative groups, especially those dealing with education, must forcefully denounce these individuals and groups, as William F. Buckley Jr. once denounced the John Birch Society.
In another incident last month, Paul Nehlen, who ran against Speaker Paul Ryan in the GOP primary in 2016, launched an anti-Semitic Twitter thread that included a spreadsheet list of Jews (many of whom weren’t Jews) in the media. The reaction was troubling. There were a lot of jokes, a lot of brushing it off as the musings of an idiot.
What was lacking was much earnest concern that Nehlen may have been tapping into a growing vein of white supremacy in the United States. It may be a small fringe, but the ADL numbers show its activities and prominence are growing. This shouldn’t be shrugged at.
A Time to Reach Out
Last year’s tragedy in Charlottesville must wake up conservative campus groups and the organizations and individuals that support them. The approach of the past several years, which has included invitations to figures like Spencer and his ilk, has been a terrible failure. Conservatives cannot shock or provoke academia into taking a more sensible approach to race. If anything, the approach calcifies, and to some justifies, the very progressive ideas that created the opening for white supremacists in the first place.
What is needed is a new approach, one that looks and reaches out to the legitimate concerns of people of color. Issues like the black-white income gap and disparate treatment in criminal justice are as important as progressive threats to campus speech. It’s important for conservatives to fight for ideological diversity on campus, but that, in and of itself, cannot be the only concern. We also must hear how conservative ideas can help solve the problems in our society.
We need fewer campus appearances from Milo Yiannopoulos and more from David French. We need to hear fewer grievances about the destruction of Western culture and more description of how that culture, with its dedication to liberty, offers the best path forward to a more equal society.
The forces of white supremacy are not as large in number as they once were, but they may well be more sophisticated. More than anything else, they rely on a narrative that colleges are stacked against white people in policies, in admissions, and in teaching. Conservatives must be more circumspect in how we address that perception and narrative.
Jumping on every example of ridiculous policies about who can say, wear, or eat what is great for clicks, but is it making a dent in the way colleges actually treat race? It’s not clear that it is. This is an issue where reasonable people of all political stripes should be able to sit together and find solutions.
It is an opportunity for conservatives to make absolutely clear that they oppose and will actively fight white supremacy, and for progressives to really listen to serious conservative ideas about how to create greater opportunity for all Americans. The scourge of white supremacists could be a catalyst for compromise that unites the Right and Left in colleges. Until that happens, expect the rise of white supremacy on our nation’s campuses to get much worse.