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Students, faculty members and administrators attend a lecture by the Georgia Southern history department after a book-burning incident in October.

Jonathan M. Chick / Georgia Southern University

When Georgia Southern University administrators sent out a campuswide email last week outlining the university's commitment to racial inclusion and equity, it may have been cause for approval and praise. After all, the Inclusive Excellence statement was being codified as "the central pillar" of the university's new strategic plan.

Instead, the timing was seen by students as suspect and a cynical move by the university to quell complaints and criticisms, which started the day before, about the administration's defense of a class presentation that promoted a popular white supremacist theory.

The presentation by a student named Charles Robertson came on the heels of a book-burning protest by some white students on campus who took umbrage with an author's reading and discussion of her novel about a Hispanic student's experience at an elite American college. The book was required reading for some first-year students. The burnings took place in October after the Latina author spoke on campus about white privilege. The students involved were also defended by university administrators as expressing their free speech rights.

Some students now believe the defense of the book burning opened the door for Robertson to promote a xenophobic, white supremacist ideology during a class presentation, said Daniela Rodriguez, 25, a Mexican immigrant who graduated from the university in May.

“He feels safe to speak up, and now I can only imagine how many more are out there with this racist mentality of hate,” said Rodriguez, who is the lead organizer for the Savannah Undocumented Youth Alliance, or SUYA, which advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants in Georgia.

“Now they feel very comfortable, very brave to do something worse,” Rodriguez said. “The administration should do something before something else happens.”

Robertson did a PowerPoint presentation on replacement theory on Nov. 15 in his freshman English composition class. The theory is popular among white supremacist groups and posits that falling white birth rates around the world will result in the replacement, and eventual extinction, of white people by people of color. Robertson railed against the immigration policies of Western countries, which he said strategically populate European countries with nonwhite immigrants from the developing countries to compensate for declining white birth rates.

“While it is difficult to hear presentations with which we vehemently disagree, we must uphold the Constitution of the United States,” a statement from the university said. “It is even more reason why we at Georgia Southern University must continue our unwavering commitment to equity and inclusion.”

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, describes replacement theory as “sugarcoated” racism that plays on the fear that white people will ultimately be replaced entirely by nonwhites.

“They’ll take real trends that are occurring … various demographic changes, and try to paint it fictionally as some kind of existential threat,” Levin said.

He noted that the conspiracy has been promulgated in the manifestos of mass shooters who target immigrant groups and said it’s concerning that it's now being spread in a college class. The replacement theory idea was echoed by the man who targeted Latinos and killed 22 people in an El Paso, Tex., Walmart in August, and by a mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed more than 50 Muslim worshippers in a mosque in March, Levin said.

Jasmine Anderson, a senior at Georgia Southern who is African American, said allowing Robertson to promote such ideas on campus “could encourage someone who agrees with whatever was said in that presentation to act violently. I’m sure there’s all types of groups who are probably looking up to the person who has the balls to say something in class as some form of motivation and empowerment … It is alarming that something of that caliber is being tolerated. It’s coming quite close to terroristic.”

Robertson recorded and posted his presentation on YouTube on Nov. 16. It had nearly 100,000 views as of Dec. 9 and was praised by thousands of commenters. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Robertson also tweeted a link to the video in a thread where he encouraged followers to “Join AIM,” or the American Identity Movement, which is an active alt-right white supremacist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

AIM is the “reincarnation” of Identity Evropa, the alt-right group that participated in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Levin said. The group traditionally targets young men on college campuses with papering campaigns. AIM has lately been increasing its presence on campuses, Levin said.

“Along with a diversification of population, we’re seeing depression at elevated levels in recent years of people entering college and studying there,” he said. “They’re susceptible to being manipulated, not only to racist messages but to any conspiracy that has some appeal, how it’s packaged in a way that’s comfortable for young people.”

Robertson’s presentation was for an assignment on a topic of the student’s choice, said John Lester, Georgia Southern's vice president for strategic communications. While the original presentation took place in a classroom, “the promotion of it, use of it, explanation of it, spreading of it, and the association of it with certain ideologies and movements were all done on social media by the student,” Lester wrote in an email.

“What he did with his assignment outside the classroom is beyond the control or reach of the university,” the university's statement said. “While individuals are free to express their views, these views in no way align with the values and statements of diversity and inclusion at Georgia Southern University.”

Those values are outlined in the university's Inclusive Excellence statement, which is touted as a "center pillar" and "core value" of its new strategic plan. The statement is a commitment to ensure all diverse groups of students, staff and faculty members on campus are respected and valued, according to the university’s website. Georgia Southern’s administration worked for 10 months with the National Inclusive Excellence Leadership Academy to incorporate diversity and inclusion goals into the strategic plan and leadership positions.

“I know they have had a number of new challenges occur this fall,” said Damon Williams, who leads the academy. “Those things are damaging and painful for the community more broadly.”

Williams noted that Kyle Marrero, Georgia Southern's president since April, has made it a priority to improve the campus climate for students of color since his arrival.

"The reality is, you can move forward with your efforts, but that doesn’t mean the world has changed," Williams said.

Anderson pointed out that Marrero and Provost Carl Reiber sent an email to students and faculty members informing them of the final language of the Inclusive Excellence pledge on Dec. 3, one day after students began speaking out about Robertson’s presentation on social media. The email summarized the university’s “unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion” without mentioning Robertson's presentation.

“It’s too coincidental that they sent it [that day] and it doesn’t apply to the actions that occurred on campus, or how things are handled on campus,” she said. “It’s too general and not very action-based … Those are just words. That doesn’t mean you believe it, that doesn’t mean it holds true to the climate on this campus and it doesn’t mean you’re acting on it.”

For his part, Robertson spoke directly against the inclusive excellence pledge in his presentation.

“‘Diversity is our strength’ is a bare-faced lie,” he said. “I don’t care if you call me a racist.”

Lauren Krapf, national policy counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said it's important for university and college professors to determine the effectiveness of such presentations in the classrooms and to spur thoughtful conversations and enhance learning.

"While there is absolutely a First Amendment right to speech on public university campuses, the classroom is not an appropriate place for white nationalist recruitment," she said. "It is incumbent on the university and professors to make determinations about how presentations, conversations and assignments on controversial topics are handled -- with an eye toward advancing the educational purpose of a particular assignment or course offering."

The most Georgia Southern can do within the law as a public university is to tell stakeholders this does not reflect the university’s views and remind them of First Amendment freedoms, said Robert Shibley, executive director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, an advocacy group for students’ due process and speech rights.

“It’s not fair to hold a college accountable for what a student says,” Shibley said. “For people who say Georgia Southern is at fault here, it’s erroneous and misguided … The way to fight bad speech is to have more speech.”

Levin said Georgia Southern should use the presentation as a teaching opportunity to elevate ideas that debunk Robertson’s white supremacist theories and encourage the campus to “come together morally and intellectually.”

After the book-burning incident, Marrero and other administrators held a forum for students to express concerns. Faculty members in the history department also lectured about the history of book burning, according to FIRE.

Both Anderson and Rodriguez said some students of color don’t feel safe speaking out, and they doubt doing so will change the behavior of students with racist views or the way the university handles them.

After the book-burning incident, students issued a statement and held a walk-out, but Anderson said she did not participate because she did not trust the university to protect the protesters.

“That’s really a problem,” Rodriguez said. “Students of color don’t feel safe speaking up, but white supremacists feel safe.”

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