Anissa Jackson of Homer, La., carries Confederate battle flags as she runs past the Civil Rights Memorial outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, Oct. 22, 2004 (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
#WhiteGenocide: these were the words Indiana University students found written on fliers and in chalk around their campus last March. This white power message references the theory among supremacists that the increasing non-white population in the United States is a threat to eliminate “white culture.”
One student, Aidan Crane, explained in the Indiana Daily Student that he took it upon himself to tear down every flier he saw. He also encouraged his fellow Hoosiers to follow suit.
“Dangerous movements grow from small seeds,” Crane wrote. “We have a responsibility to stop racism and white nationalism whenever they rear their ugly heads.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of existing hate groups in the US has grown by 67 percent since the year 2000 and has increased by 813 percent since President Obama was elected into office, from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 groups in 2012.
The dramatic rise in hate groups over the past five years is also reflected in the copious amount of hate speech that’s been increasingly visible on college campuses.
Last fall, Towson University senior Michael Heimbach founded a “white student union” that conducted nighttime patrols in order to protect students from what he called the school’s “black crime wave.” After a series of racist symbols were found on campus (a Nazi flag and “whites only” sign above a water fountain), Oberlin College cancelled classes in March to hold a “Day of Solidarity.”
Most recently, an incoming freshman at Georgia State University named Patrick Sharp created another white student union, citing Heimbach as his inspiration.
While white student unions are generally met with resistance from other students on campus, college administrators defend their right to exist. Doug Covey, Georgia State’s vice president for student affairs, told The Huffington Post in August that he had already received a number of complaints, but “all students at the university enjoy the right to engage in free speech.”
More college administrators need to take a stand against white student unions on campus and be clear about having a zero tolerance policy for hate groups. Freedom of speech is, of course, constitutionally protected, but wildly misguided groupthink mentalities pose a threat to changing popular opinion and perception for the worse. The mere existence of white student unions on campuses creates a danger that can sometimes be just as harmful as physical injury: they’re toxic for students’ minds.
Do we really want a new generation of thinkers to be influenced by extreme racism and hate? After the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, a Newsweek poll revealed that almost 60 percent of Americans think race relations have gotten worse since President Obama was elected into office, and 89 percent of blacks and 80 percent of whites believe racial stereotypes play a role in society today.
Race divides us, and colleges shouldn’t allow white student unions to permeate campus culture. At a time when racial tensions are running high nationally, white students unions are nothing to take lightly. When school administrations remain complacent and fail to speak out against these hate groups, they allow racist acts and ideologies on both individual and systemic levels.
College can be some of the most transformative years in a person’s life. It’s a time filled with learning and enlightenment, from the classes you enroll in to the people you meet, and it all ultimately shapes the person you become in the world. Students then become contributing members of society and are influenced by these life-changing experiences.
Institutions of higher education need to come to a consensus that white-rights groups are inappropriate on campus and take collective action to ensure they don’t continue to pop up like they have in the past year. Official policies should make clear that white student unions are not welcome on campus: they should not receive official recognition from their home universities, should not be able to apply for funding and should be denounced by administrators instead of defended.
Faculty, staff and university employees—especially deans, presidents and those in charge—need to act with a sense of urgency and show more concern about hate speech masked as free speech.
After all, showing a tolerance for racism anywhere shows a tolerance for racism everywhere.