When the Alt-Right Hits Campus

Against the Current, No. 186, January/February 2017

Angela D. Dillard

IN FALL 2016, the University of Michigan officially rolled out its strategic plan for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), an initiative over a year in the making and aimed at creating an equitable and inclusive environment for all students, faculty and staff.

Over the course of the year of campus-wide DEI-plan making, the Ann Arbor institution has become an especially compelling target for bigotry and racism in the now famously toxic atmosphere that led up to and has continued after the 2016 presidential election. Under the auspices of the “Alt Right” and its wannabe hipster version of white nationalism, the university community was subjected to a bombardment of racist hate that many of us thought relegated to the pre-Obama past.

It’s hard to fully understand the Alt-Right attack without reference to the effort to bring the campus environment into line with a 21st century vision of equity and community. I offer this reflection on what was an extremely tense and complicated few weeks as students, faculty members, activists and administrators struggled to respond to the outbreak of hate.

I hope my observations and the information will spark conversations on other campuses about the confluence of divergent elements: diversity plans and calls for inclusion, student protests and student fears, and what feels like a new iteration of old ideas about racism, exclusion and white supremacy.

Racist Posters and the Response

After 12 months of working groups, studies, climate surveys and public meetings (town halls), the DEI was being readied for its grand unveiling on October 6.

As the university’s PR machine was gearing up for what was supposed to be a celebratory “Big Reveal,” a series of white supremacist, anti-Black and Islamophobic posters began to appear in public spaces on the Ann Arbor campus.

These warned white women about the “dangers” of dating Black men; questioned the IQ of African Americans; depicted Muslims as violent and bloodthirsty; trafficked in misogyny; taunted immigrants and Jews — the “Pepe the Frog” meme was prominently featured; and called on white Americans, as “Euro-Americans,” to reclaim their heritage and reaffirm their “superior” identity.

My own practice has been to not recirculate the images of the posters. I do not want to amplify their message or the pain that they have caused for those targeted. But I respect those who believe that we need to be educated and informed about the visual language and rhetorical strategies they use to convey their messages.

The images are readily available on social media sites and have been used effectively in other articles on their appearance on college campus. (See, for example, my colleague Austin McCoy’s “White Supremacist Hate Only Fuels Our Movement,” on the AFT’s Voices on Campus Blog–https://medium.com/voices-on-campus/white-supremacist-hate-only-fuels-our-movement-52e928f4392e#.seebrakkr)

The response to these sickening posters from various element of the campus community and university leadership was swift and multifaceted. Several widely endorsed statements condemned the posters as expressions of hate and intolerance; they forcefully restated the University of Michigan’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Some declarations, including the one issued by U-M President Mark Schlissel, prominently referenced the necessity of freedom of thought and expression. Some characterized the hate posters by use of deliberately concrete terms like “white supremacy,” while others were more abstract and, therefore, arguably less effective. Nearly all expressed genuine concern for the students whose social identities were disparaged.

The statement from the Central Student Government (CSG) was notable for its very direct reference to the hurt of Black students and the need to affirm “that #BlackLivesMatter — today and every day.” Moreover, CSG’s statement sought to link to its earlier September 23 call for solidarity with students around the country who have been subject to racism, white supremacy, police brutality, and injustice.

Specifically cited were nearby Eastern Michigan University, a campus similarly beset by the appearance of racist, anti-Black graffiti several days before, and campuses in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma. The CSG statement was an important reminder that these incidents on campus needed to be contextualized in light of broader national issues and struggles.

The CSG statement also connected these events with a provocatively-planned debate on the #BlackLivesMatter movement that had been scheduled at the U-M for the evening of September 26th. This debate, which was sponsored by a non-partisan student organization called the Michigan Political Union, quickly became a flashpoint for student protesters.

The situation added an additional layer of complexity for university administrators who are pledged to seek a balance between the goal of an inclusive campus, where students feel a sense of safety, but a simultaneous commitment to a culture of free speech that permits free exchange of ideas.

The problem was that the resolution that the Michigan Political Union (MPU) placed on the floor – “Black Lives Matter is harmful to racial relations in the United States” — was nothing short of incendiary in the context of an already brittle, frayed campus climate.

Further complicating the situation was a separate action that just preceded the debate: Hundreds of students gathered on the U-M Diag — an open space near the center of the central campus that has hosted generations of protests — to stage a die-in in defense of #BlackLivesMatter and in frustration with what they deemed to be the university’s inadequate response to the racist posters and to campus climate issues.

From there, the students proceeded over to the debate venue of the Michigan Political Union. As a result, the debate could not proceed in the orderly way envisioned, somewhat naively, by the MPU members.

The protesters were noisy and disruptive and at times profane; they put their voices in the space and joined the exchange on their own terms while their fellow student protesters and supporters encircled the room. No one was hurt. The event occurred, but not as it had been planned because the protest intervened in a way that made the MPU’s parliamentary process impossible to implement.

Free Speech/Hate Speech

The events of that evening demonstrate the complexity of the present moment on college campuses. For many conservatives on campus and beyond, the disruption of the MPU debate was just one more indication of the degree to which universities were coddling campus liberals and leftists.

An article in The American Conservative reduced the protestors to “a racialized mob using fascist tactics” to silence other students, and advised the university, going forward, “to send campus police to protect events like this.” (“Black Lives Matter Campus Fascists,” The American Conservative, September 30, 2016)

The piece also contained a helpful update from “A conservative friend at the University of Michigan” who noted that tempers and tensions were already flaring because “a number of ‘racially charged’ (the student paper’s term; I’d go so far as to say blatantly racist) fliers were found around campus” with “racist propaganda calling black men low-IQ rapists bent on murdering pretty (blonde) white women. You and I both know just how old that trope is.”

The conservative campus informant does not condone the BLM protesters — far from it — but affirms that their “pissed-ness had cause;” he or she points an accusatory finger at the “Alt-Right.”

There are a growing number of journalistic hit-pieces about campus politics that ridicule students as “snowflakes” and “cry babies” and classrooms as factories for indoctrination.

Journalists and critics who live in glass echo chambers ought not to throw stones, especially at institutions better equipped to bring people from diverse backgrounds together on campus, in classrooms, organizations, residence halls and student councils. Indeed, this is the sweet-spot and the hard-spot of a meaningful DEI plan.

Many, perhaps even most, college students themselves tend not to see protest as proof that free speech on campuses is really in danger. A recent poll found that 73% of the 3,000 students sampled across 240 colleges rated free speech on campuses to be secure to very secure, and more than half believe that free speech protections have indeed increased.

The vast majority of students, according to this survey and as summarized in a thoughtful article published in the Atlantic Monthly, do not believe institutions ought to restrict political views as a matter of policy although, and this is critical: “Students tend to draw the line at slurs and ethnically stereotypical costumes, however with 69% and 63%, respectively, believing campuses should have the ability to restrict those kinds of expression.”

In other words, what distinguishes young adults today is not an aversion to unfamiliar and uncomfortable opinions. It is that they are much more comfortable than their parents — and apparently many journalists — about curtailing speech on campus whose purpose is to hurt, mock and, like the posters at Michigan, to promote white supremacists views. (“A Free Speech Debate Devoid of Facts,” Atlantic Monthly, April 7, 2016)

Of course the borderlines between free speech and hateful speech are not always crystal clear; nor is the demand for more authoritarian action by university officials — coming often from the Left as well as the Right — without its own problems. At Michigan many students, especially anti-racist activists, called on the institution and the university’s president to forcibly prevent the spread of the posters, to find and punish the culprits, and to keep the campus safe.

“The University has continuously shown its allegiance and dedication to ‘defend’ the right to Freedom of Speech, but fails at providing and promising safety to students of color,” reads the first line of the Change.org petition launched by an activist group called Students4Justice:

“The safety of students should not come as an afterthought, it should be a priority. The active stance that the University has taken to ensure others their right to Freedom of Speech, such as refusing to erase the harmful islamophobic [sic] messaging, should be comparable to the active measures the university is taking to protect its students of color.”

Listening to demands of students to be kept safe and protected by a university and its president can be jarring, especially for those aging boomers who recall that the original (1965) Free Speech Movement (FSM) was waged by student activists against in loco parentis — the practice of colleges and universities functioning as parents to curtail behavior that was seen as inappropriate.

But beneath the language of safety lies, I think, the institution’s promise of creating a campus environment that is inclusive and welcoming and that feels like home. The challenge is that a university has very few tools to make this promise a reality for all of its students.

This disjuncture has been a fertile organizing ground for Students4Justice, a group that has grown throughout the fall semester and that led a mass walkout that began at the Diag and snaked across central campus. Thanks to the serendipity of academic life at a major research university, Jesse Jackson left an event designed to explore his political legacy and addressed the crowd.

Problems of Speech Codes

I appreciated the biting humor of students using the hashtag #SchlisselWya? (#wya = where you at?) to goad the university’s president into action. (He had been away from campus, traveling on university business when the first wave of racist posters appeared.) But it’s not as if the guy is Batman, able to swoop in and keep the citizens of Gotham U safe and secure.

The calls for more surveillance cameras and increasing policing of public spaces on campus, again in the name of safety, also has a darker, more disturbing side. Overall, punitive approaches tend to be less effective in promoting and sustaining positive change; they invariably open institutions up to legal challenge.

Moreover, we should be continuously leery of speech codes and censorship laws that tend to get turned against members of marginalized communities who lack institutional power and social capital.

The University of Michigan went down the “speech code” road decades ago. During the last major wave of student protest on campus in the late 1980s, Michigan was one of the first institutions to adopt a speech code that sought to counter and prevent incidents of racial and ethnic slurs and other forms of verbal harassment.

Established in 1988 as a mechanism to address a deteriorating campus climate and to meet the demands of student activists, it was quickly deemed unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court in the 1989 ruling in the Doe v. Michigan case. The court recognized that there are “fighting words” and types of “hate speech” not protected by the First Amendment but ruled that the university’s code was too broad and ambiguous, too likely to include speech that was “merely” offensive and unseemly but nonetheless constitutionally protected.

Figuring out where to draw these lines is nearly impossible when multiple parties on campuses from numerous and sometimes diametrically opposed positions all claim to be hurt, wounded and rendered unsafe by someone’s else words.

I do not doubt that the feelings are real; they can be heartbreaking to read on the page and devastating to hear in person. Yet adjudicating among competing claims is a herculean task.

On October 4, now days before the planned official rollout of the DEI plan, the Palestine solidarity group SAFE — Students Allied for Freedom and Equality — assembled an “apartheid wall” and mock Israeli “checkpoints” on the campus Diag as part of their Palestinian Awareness Month events.

In response pro-Israel students launched a petition and penned an open letter to President Schlissel to condemn the display on the grounds that it constitutes offensive speech.

“Just last week, you sent a message to the student body emphatically stating that ‘behavior that seeks to intentionally cause pain to members of our community is reprehensible,” they wrote. “We speak on behalf of many students in the Jewish and pro-Israel campus community and we write that yesterday we felt ostracized and excluded.”

The student authors were especially concerned that SAFE’s action occurred on the high holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which meant that there were some Jewish students on campus emotionally defenseless, “left to cope . . . without the support of many of their peers.” There is no concrete evidence that the group targeted the high holiday; Schlissel did not issue a public response.

In one of the odder moments as all this was unfolding, the University’s provost called on all of the faculty to gather on the Diag also on October 4 in support of students and against expressions of white supremacy and hate. There had been a growing sense that the faculty had been largely left out of a conversation between “The Students” on the one hand, and “The Administration” on the other.

Hundreds answered Provost Pollack’s call to stand in solidarity with students, with each other, and with the institution itself. As far as I know, no one publicly commented that they did so in front of the SAFE wall, on Rosh Hashanah.

Faculty Against Racism

Across the span of these difficult weeks on campus, the faculty sought places to stand and productive ways to respond. Two faculty statements emerged.

The first collectively drafted statement sought to provide historical context for the “scientific racism” and white supremacy of the posters. By this point there had been a second wave of posters on campus, less visually and viscerally violent and subtler, appealing to “evidence” and “open debate” about the inferiority of non-white peoples.

The second, “Faculty and Staff Statement Against Racism,” condemned the posters and racist graffiti on the campus of Eastern Michigan, underscored support for Black students and colleagues, and called for a concerted effort to establish “an inclusive, diverse, compassionate and safe campus.”

Both statements circulated for three days on an open Google document platform. While this allowed for the novel sense of solidarity in watching others sign the document simultaneously and in real time, it also left the documents vulnerable to attack.

Both documents were erased on October 2nd. The two texts were re­placed with the words: “ALL OF THE COMMUNIST WILL HANG ON THE DAY OF THE ROPE,” a line from the white supremacist novel, The Turner Diaries.

The culprits protected themselves under the cloak of anonymity. The two documents were restored and appeared, with the original signatures in a two-page spread in the student newspaper. Both were transferred to a petition format affording more protection. They continue to run on the website of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (myumi.ch/lsadei)

Confronting the Alt-Right

What do you do when the Alt-Right comes to your campus?

In incidences of racist speech on campus that are anonymous, the challenges are substantially heightened. To date no single individual or group has claimed credit for the waves of white supremacist posters on campus, for the defacement of the two faculty statements, for the hundreds of trolling tweets so many of us — faculty, students, administrators —– have received.

The party or parties responsible could be a student or students at the university, a member of the faculty or the professional staff, or a member of the larger workforce responsible for day-to-day operations on a large campus — or members of the general public bent on targeting a campus known for its liberalism.

The posters are part of a larger “Alt-Right” phenomenon that has gained much more national attention since the election of Donald Trump, but pre-dates November 8. Many of us on campus groping for appropriate responses learned very quickly about such groups as Identity Evorpa.

We’ve gotten increasingly adept at searching reddit sites and understanding the white nationalist landscape of the state in terms of key players and organizations. We were not surprised to find sites that advise users to download poster and flier images — including the ones that have appeared on the Ann Arbor campus — and “for less than $50” you can create chaos on a campus.

Because of social media, they need not physically come to campus. They can beam in messages from afar. They know and we know that the university will react. But we can choose what that reaction looks like.

I believe in free speech not so much because it has intrinsic value but because, practically speaking, the alternatives are dreadful. The best practical antidote to offensive speech probably is, at the end of the day, more and better speech, along with creative ways of combating ignorance with knowledge.

Inaction — just ignoring the posters on campus in an attempt to rise above the bigotry and as a way to avoid the risk of amplification — isn’t really a solution. It abdicates our responsibility as educators and leaves our students and our colleagues who have been targeted in an even more vulnerable position.

On the Michigan campus there was counter-postering that included an officially-sanctioned “Spread Ideas Not Hate” campaign that made some interesting attempts to reconnect with the University’s DEI plan roll-out, and a student-generated effort that used the images of words of historical figures such as Anne Braden, Pablo Freire, Alicia Garza and others.

We need to build on these early spur-of-the-moment actions, and help students and faculty and staff and administrators to frame ongoing responses that decrease the need to react only in moments of perceived crisis. We need ways of mobilizing campus resources, including the impressive expertise of faculty members and infrastructure that supports the educational mission of the institution.

Above all, we need to avoid provocation. In a very smart piece on “Real-Life Trolling: How Provocation Works and How to Respond,” University of Michigan historian Joshua Cole insists that provocations are “not just manipulative acts, or angry utterances coming from an unwholesome and fearful rage.” He explains:

“They are powerful forms of performative action and meaning that, in their repetition, help to create the very reality that sustains them. In this sense, provocations are always an attempt to simplify the lines of political conflict, to reduce the field of political action to a small number of irreconcilable positions whose views and values are mutually incompatible. In a world fractured by provocations, there can be no legitimacy on the other side, only an enemy to be struggled against.”

This impulse toward Manichean simplification, Cole notes, is rooted in fear — fear of multicultural societies, of racial equality, of fluid sexual identities, porous borders, and changing social and cultural norms. As we move closer to the racial and ethnic tipping point when the United States will become a majority-minority nation, we can expect a heightened degree of these reactionary fears and the new forms through which they will continue to be expressed.

Cole writes persuasively about the characteristics of provocateurs in the present moment: they target the most vulnerable first; they incite racial hatreds and then blame their victims for “playing the race card;” they construe angry responses to their antics as proof that they are the aggrieved party and all attempt to silence them as an abuse of free speech, debate and the exchange of ideas.

The provocateurs are not, in the end, particularly interested in ideas that are complex and freely exchanged. But our responses need to reclaim the authentic mantle of speech that is free, inclusive, informed, participatory, committed to democratic principles, and supportive of the institutions that sustain and nurture them.

A principled response to provocation is one that helps students and faculty and staff and administrators to understand that this is no simple matter of free speech and difference of opinion. Much of what is contained in those “Alt Right” campus posters is the equivalent of academic fake news. Trump muddles these waters but we need to skim the scum off the top.

One of the major post-election flash points on campus was the stunned — and yes, hurt — reactions of conservative and Republican students to the vitriol of their non-conservative peers who blamed them for all of the racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and xenophobia unleashed during this long election cycle.

In their letter to the university president, titled #NotMyCampus, they asserted that the university’s response to the election result was “perpetuating a hateful climate that makes students feel ashamed of voting for Donald Trump.”

The principal author of the letter, which a few hundred other students signed, expresses hurt and frustration with being labeled a racist for supporting Trump: “What hurts me even more is that the University is not encouraging students to understand each other … but have instead chosen to foster hate, blatantly catering to a certain group of students on campus while indirectly ignoring others.”

Separating the resurgence of the Racist Right from the politics and policies of the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement seems essential. This will likely prove to be crucial for the GOP and 21st century conservatism itself. Just as an earlier generation had to discredit and distance itself from the likes of the John Birch Society, so, too, will the contemporary Reasonable Right need to confront what’s lurking in the attic, cellar and dark corners of its movement.

The #NotMyCampus letter missed the opportunity, however, to take a stand against white supremacy. It treats Trump like any other candidate and this election like any other election. “This was an election, nothing more and nothing less.”

The letter ignores the broader context of events both before and after November 8th — the sheer ugliness of the posters, and the reported acts of ethnic intimidation, one of which turned out to be false. It’s also a little too quick in calls for “unity” for my taste but it’s a perspective that needs to be heard and acknowledged.

A Hopeful Look Forward

I have great faith in our collective capacity to successfully navigate this moment on our campus. I suspect some of this capacity may entail embracing part of the university’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan despite varying levels of cynicism about the motivation, criticisms of the process through which it was created, and exhaustion with the whole “diversity thing.”

Letters to the President, petitions addressed to “The Administration,” and student protests all play a role, especially in calling attention to serious issues that affect the lives of students and their ability to learn and thrive on campus.

But this will always be insufficient unless paired with real action and meaningful involvement — at all levels of the university, across political differences, and in ways that embody the civic, institutional ethos we hope to engender as a bulwark against the worst aspects of the wider political culture.

January-February 2017, ATC 186