One meme features a group of black children crowded around a cotton-candy booth. The focal point of the 1945 photograph, taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris, best known for his intimate, humanizing photographs documenting 20th-century African-American life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a young black boy reaching toward a large cloud of cotton candy, eyes wide and mouth open in delight. The photo is captioned in white block letters: “You mean I don’t have to pick it and I can eat it?!”
In another, a Photoshopped image of Hitler tapping his forehead foregrounds a concentration camp. “You can’t hate Jews if there is no Jews,” the caption reads, attributed to “Adolf, 1942.” In another riff, Hitler taps his forehead again. The meme reads: “You can’t be racist if there is no other race.”
By the top right corner of these images, gray hearts show that several people have “liked” them—part of the interface for GroupMe, a group messaging chat. The GroupMe chat where these memes circulated, titled “The Meme Stash to End All Meme Stashes,” was created and primarily used by University of Pittsburgh students who, at the time, were members of the conservative campus organizations Pitt College Republicans and Polis Media, a student-run media website.
The “meme stash” became public on January 24, when a group of antifascist activists, operating from the Twitter handle @pittracists, began posting screenshots of the private social-media conversations containing these and other racist and anti-Semitic memes. One of the antifascist activists behind the @pittracists account, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the group was motivated by a desire for accountability. “The University of Pittsburgh is home to white nationalists, racists, and their apologists…specifically those who associate with the Pitt College Republicans & alt-right publication Polis Media have been involved in various secret groups where they share genocide apologia & other racist ‘jokes,’” the Twitter thread of screenshots began. One tweet, promising more screenshots, ended with #WeGotThis, Chelsea Manning’s regular sign-off.
In a since-deleted statement released on Twitter, Arnaud Armstrong, former editor in chief of Polis Media (and, screenshots indicate, also a member of the GroupMe chat), described the group chat as a place “to privately and facetiously share inappropriate memes out of curiosity for seeing what the worst of the internet could produce.” Armstrong referred to those involved in disseminating the images as “radical” and “extremist” and repeatedly insisted that the memes shared were in no way “representative of the character or actual beliefs of the students involved.” Calling the actions of @pittracists “character assassination,” Armstrong added, “While we certainly hope that this represents the extent of attacks against the Pitt and Polis communities, we are aware that more is likely to come forward.” Polis Media deleted its website the next day. Through statements, two other Polis- and Pitt College Republicans–affiliated students expressed remorse for their actions and decried the content of the memes they shared.
Another screenshot, apparently pertaining to the original group chat, shows a message from one of the chat’s participants (another then–College Republicans member) to someone who had been removed from the chat. It reads: “the reason I removed you from the chat is because you took offense to some of the posts in the main group chat a while ago… the purpose of the group chat is simply that: to share edgy content and express a plethora of dark humor, etc. Please do not take offense, feel free to rejoin if you’re more comfortable with some of the inappropriate humor.”
This attempt to explain away the virulent racism of the group chat as intellectual curiosity or humor echoes the talking points of a part of the far right that Milo Yiannopoulos describes as “a young, rebellious contingent who feel a mischievous urge to blaspheme, break all the rules, and say the unsayable. Why?” he asks. “Because it’s funny!” Yiannopoulos and other far-right proponents and apologists go to great lengths to enumerate the many excuses, beyond simple racism, for sharing racist content, including a desire to provoke or mock the excesses of liberals or to thrive on the energy and excitement of violating taboos. For many, Yiannopoulos claims, transgressing the boundaries of political correctness is “simply a means to fluster their grandparents.”
Regardless of whether all of the Pitt students sharing morally repugnant memes endorsed their content, they created a space among friends (likely also within their shared political organizations) where white supremacy and other oppressive ideologies not only went unchallenged, but where anyone who spoke out was shamed. These types of spaces both attract and legitimize those who do sincerely hold those views. Beyond that, as Jason Wilson writes for The Guardian, “More generally, every ‘ironic’ repetition of far-right ideals contributes to a climate in which racism, misogyny, or Islamophobia is normalised.” Alice Marwick, author of a Data & Society Research Institute report on online disinformation and manipulation, argues that in this blend of irony and fascism, “irony has a strategic function. It allows people to disclaim a real commitment to far-right ideas while still espousing them.”
“The far right in our country is getting smarter,” one of the members of @pittracists said. “They know they can’t win over the general population with overtly racist memes…so they keep that part private while the outward message is one of ostensibly ‘American’ or ‘conservative’ values.” The College Republicans declined to answer any further questions, arguing, “The conversation in question was in no way connected to our club, so we have no further information that would be of use.” After the screenshots were released, Pitt College Republicans issued a statement saying that it had been made aware of the meme chat earlier this year. They called its contents “utterly repulsive.” College Republicans Public Relations Director Conor Guiser said four students were suspended for their participation in the chat in September, though two of the students in question appear in photos posted on Facebook of the College Republicans meeting gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner on January 23. The students were formally removed the next day—after the screenshots came to light.
The consequences of the continued normalization of racism on campuses are clear. Just in the last month, students at two different universities have drawn public condemnation for expressing racist views on social media: Two students at George Washington University appeared in a racist Snapchat in which a white woman claimed black heritage based on her display of a banana peel; another woman was expelled from the University of Alabama for posting Instagram videos of herself spewing obscene and racist rants. All this is happening against the backdrop of the recent intensification of white-nationalist activity on college campuses nationwide. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s recent report, campuses are experiencing a marked increase in white-supremacist propaganda, up 258 percent from fall 2016 to fall 2017.
For @pittracists, none of this is theoretical. “All year we’ve seen racist flyers around campus and slightly watered down white nationalism being promoted by groups like the Pitt College Republicans,” they said, in one case bringing up a Pitt College Republicans’ statement that referred to Pittsburgh’s chapter of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa as “local conservatives.” The Twitter account, they added, “is just the first time we can put names and faces to this kind of fascist organizing…I think that makes everyone feel a little more in control of what’s going on.” Members of the Bloomfield Antifa Crew, an affiliate of the broader activist network Steel City Autonomous Movement (SCAM), support @pittracists’ work but caution against viewing the racist images as merely “the mistakes of individuals.” (Bloomfield is a neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh, adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus.) Members wrote in a collective statement, “While doxxing tactics might prevent individual racists from spreading their ideas, they run the risk of feeding into the ‘bad apple’ narrative that tends to divorce racist individuals from the political work they engage in. It cannot be ignored that the people exposed by @PittRacists were all part of the same political organizations.”
Meanwhile, the @pittracists account has since evolved beyond a space to out the participants in an ugly group chat. The group has become a network of concerned citizens publicizing the increasingly frequent presence of white-supremacist propaganda. Since January 24, @pittracists has continued posting screenshots: other racist images created by a Pitt student on social media apps; evidence of now-removed activity by College Republicans on a neo-Nazi message board; and reports of white-supremacist organizations’ flyering around campus. The anonymous co-founder said that the feed will stay up to “be a resource for people if they have anything that would be relevant to share.”