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White supremacists holding tiki torches march on the University of Virginia campus during the Unite the Right rally in 2017.

NurPhoto/Contributor via Getty Images

The recently released Final Report from the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol recommends steps to address “violent extremism” by “white nationalist groups and violent anti-government groups,” among others. As we reflect on the rise of extremism, we often overlook one powerful approach: the role that higher education can play in inoculating students against indoctrination into white nationalism.

Certainly, K-12 education has the potential to play a key part in this work, but as a longtime college professor, I want to see colleges and universities take a more proactive role. The perpetrator of the May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., who targeted Black people at a grocery store, killing 10, and the shooter who targeted Latinx people at an El Paso, Tex., Walmart in 2019, killing 23, were both recently enrolled college students. Furthermore, while we do need to consider what leaders of higher education should be doing to confront this urgent problem, as Delta College president Michael H. Gavin recently addressed in his Inside Higher Ed op-ed “Presidents Must Speak Out Against White Nationalism,” we should also focus on what colleges can do to help our students navigate this rising threat.

As Christine Saxman and Shelly Tochluk point out on the blog Teaching While White, the Luskin Center for History and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a five-part rating system meant to help teachers and parents, among others, identify five stages of indoctrination into white nationalist thought. These include “accidental absorption,” “edgy transgression,” “political provocation,” “overt hate” and “physical violence.” While recent mass shootings are clearly one extreme end of this spectrum and demand immediate attention, colleges are an untapped resource on the other end of the spectrum, ideally preventing indoctrination from escalating.

To illustrate “accidental absorption,” a Luskin Center report gives as an example a young person who finds it amusing to see a meme of Pepe the Frog outside a gas chamber and shares the meme, without knowledge of the Holocaust. Then, for “edgy transgression,” the report uses an example of a student repeating a joke about the Holocaust for shock value, without having any connection to a white nationalist group or cause. Colleges have an opportunity to intervene in these early stages of indoctrination.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss recommends what she calls “herd immunity” or a “public-health approach to hate,” one that emphasizes “early immunization and inoculation against hate.” More specifically, I propose three main areas of engagement for higher education: debunking racist and antisemitic myths, bolstering media literacy, and developing a greater culture of belonging.

First, colleges can be much more deliberate in teaching fundamental concepts that discredit racist and antisemitic myths, concepts already taught in classes such as Introduction to Sociology. The Buffalo shooter’s nearly 200-page manifesto focuses on the “great replacement,” a racist conspiracy theory that there is a Jewish cabal trying to replace white people in the U.S. with Black people, immigrants, people of color, Muslims and anyone else seen as “undesirable.” This fear of a “white genocide” leads to the desire to provoke a civil war with the goal of creating a white ethnostate.

As Eric K. Ward puts it, “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.” We need to be much more explicit with our students about how racism, antisemitism, homophobia and patriarchy are not isolated but deeply intertwined. Feminism and LGBTQ+ equity threaten the white nationalist goal of white women having more white babies in white patriarchal households.

Furthermore, the entire racist mentality of “replacement” is premised on the false belief that race is biological, a pseudoscientific idea that humans can be divided into biologically distinct races and positioned on a hierarchy. In the past, especially during the eugenics era, educational institutions played a key role in promoting and normalizing these racist beliefs. Today they can help repair that legacy of harm by exposing this growing racist myth for what it is. Faculty across disciplines, from the sciences to the humanities, can—and should—more directly debunk this false ideology in their courses.

Miller-Idriss warns, “In the first two decades of the twenty-first century … scientific racism continued its steady march into the mainstream, so brazen today that it can only be described as a ‘revival.’” In my own college teaching experience, I have found students are often surprised to learn that race is a social construct and not biological, asking, “Why didn’t I learn this before?”

Second, we often think of today’s college students as digital natives, but being born into a world with more opportunities to access information with technology than previous generations doesn’t mean they are born knowing how to navigate such information. Developing these skills takes time and attention, and while such work should certainly begin in K-12, higher education needs to take a more active role in focusing on this type of critical thinking and media literacy. When all of one’s sources appear on a computer screen, it is challenging to discern the type of source and its purpose, especially when bad-faith actors are more sophisticated than ever at delivering misinformation. Moreover, students need to understand how social media companies operate, especially how they often profit from fear and anger, and how false messages can be amplified and spread quickly.

Concerningly, Stanford University researchers found that the majority of college students in an experiment were not able to identify a purported “news article” as satirical or identify the public relations firm behind a supposedly “nonpartisan” website because they were not using effective strategies, like those employed by fact-checkers, to evaluate the trustworthiness of the sources. We must change how we teach media literacy and integrate this approach throughout college classes, rather than focus on media literacy sporadically and only in specific disciplines, such as English.

Finally, colleges also have the opportunity to create a culture of belonging. This is a critical step because those most vulnerable to indoctrination into extremism are often those who, as Hannah Arendt put it, feel “loneliness … the experience of not belonging to the world at all.” Anne Applebaum applies Arendt’s work to the present by explaining that people who feel this way can be drawn to conspiracy theories like QAnon because they feel a sense of community through “access to special and secret information.”

Many colleges already point toward belonging in their mission or diversity statements, but they need to be more deliberate. For example, they could develop a robust form of civics education that engages students in ways that intentionally enhance an experience of belonging.

To be sure, most colleges have ever-increasing demands and ever-decreasing resources, but this work must be made a priority to fight against rising white nationalism. There are many resources available, including organizations such as Western States Center, Facing History & Ourselves, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab, and students would benefit greatly from colleges developing partnerships with these types of social justice organizations. Drawing heavily on the work of these groups, I’ve also created a website for faculty linking to articles, videos and other pedagogical resources for each of the three areas of engagement I’ve proposed. A required freshman seminar course could be one place to focus on this work.

We once considered higher education part of the public good, and it’s more imperative than ever that we revive and embrace that vision so we can work toward a truly and fully inclusive multiracial democracy. White nationalism is no longer a fringe movement, and higher education, as well as our students, are targets. We cannot afford to keep our heads in the sand.

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