When the White Supremacists Come to Campus

Advice on the best way to respond.

February 15, 2018

The University of Tennessee is just the latest campus to experience threats from white supremacists. A group called the Traditionalist Workers Party has been distributing flyers and painting UT’s iconic rock with racist messages, and white supremacist leaders have been attempting to reserve space for so-called "educational programs."

It just so happened that I had a speaking gig at the Knoxville campus the week a lot of this stuff hit the fan. The strange juxtaposition offered some interesting lessons on what to do when white supremacists come to campus.

The first thing that struck me is how many people showed up for my talk on interfaith leadership. The lecture hall was basically standing room only, and it’s not because I’m that big of a name or that great of a speaker. It’s because my event served as a convenient convening opportunity for people disgusted by the poisonous presence of white supremacists.

I was especially taken by the number of Jewish and Muslim students in the room, and how ready they were to engage each other positively. Whatever differences those two groups might have with each other on the Middle East, they know they need to come together when their safety and well-being are threatened by far more proximate forces. 

All of this suggests to me that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. A harmonious community is a little like William Carlos Williams’ red wheel barrow -- a lot depends on it but you don’t truly appreciate that until you really need it. When the white supremacists show up, they are doing you the favor of highlighting the need to strengthen the pluralism of your community. You have people’s focused attention, for a short while at least, so how are you going to use it?

Here are a handful of suggestions:

  • Plan the counterdemonstration, but don’t let it get ugly. The counter events should look like the world you are trying to build – they should be diverse, celebratory, positive, welcoming, joyful, productive, etc. Don’t let the ugly of the white supremacists convince you to become ugly. Create an event where a random passerby who didn’t have any background or broader context for the situation would look at their side and look at your side and naturally come join your side. They want to be part of the world you are building.
  • Think about the day after the day after. In other words, don’t just plan the immediate counterdemonstration. Think hard about how you can use the attention and energy generated by the presence of white supremacists to make lasting change on your campus. Can you start a new student group? Launch an annual conference on diversity? Create new courses on interfaith cooperation that fill general education requirements? Think ahead a decade – what group/event/course will be celebrating its ten year anniversary in 2028 because of what you are doing now.
  • One of the progressive Christian ministers at UT mentioned to me that, at the initial UT counterdemonstration to the white supremacists, there was an obvious dearth of white guys. This is a problem, and the way you understand that problem matters. It is not the case that the typical white male student at UT is or wants to be a white supremacist. It is the case that when the white supremacists come to town special attention should be paid to protecting, supporting and involving the groups – immigrants, African Americans, gays and lesbians, Jews, Muslims, etc  - that the white supremacists are targeting. Can you do that in a way that speaks to the white frat guy too, that makes him feel like this is his fight, that he’s got something at stake and something to contribute? This is in part a challenge of framing. I think Empowered Minorities vs White Supremacists is a perfectly understandable framing. But I think America (or UT) vs White Supremacists is better.


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