Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As White Supremacists Push Onto Campuses, Schools Wrestle With Response

Last month, flyers at the University of Pennsylvania blared "Imagine a Muslim-free America."
Beth J. Harpaz
Last month, flyers at the University of Pennsylvania blared "Imagine a Muslim-free America."

There's been an unprecedented spike in white supremacist activity on campuses across the U.S. since the election and college students and administrators are struggling to figure out how to respond.

Posters at the University of Texas at Arlington last month implored students to "report any and all illegal aliens. America is a white nation." Also last month, at the University of Pennsylvania flyers blared "Imagine a Muslim-free America."

Hate watch groups have tracked 150 incidents of white supremacist propaganda on campuses since the fall. Even just a year ago, it was such a rarity no one was even counting.

"Our time has come," roared white supremacist Richard Spencer to students at Auburn University last month. It was one of a growing number of campus visits made by white nationalist leaders looking to connect with students personally.

"This is a new phenomenon that's very dangerous," said Oren Segal, head of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. He says white supremacists, making a push for the mainstream, often try to lure students with more opaque slogans, like "Serve your people," and "Our destiny is ours."

"They don't necessarily shave their heads and wear swastika armbands where hatred is easily seen," said Segal. "And what they're hoping is that people will maybe be interested because it's not so in-your-face."

'Publicity is great'

One of those groups, Identity Evropa, describes itself on its website as a "fraternity," though one limited to people of "European non-Semitic descent." Applicants whose heritage is uncertain have been directed to undergo DNA testing.

Founder Nathan Damigo says his current recruitment effort, #ProjectSiege, will get even more aggressive next semester.

"We're going to be setting up tables, and handing out thumb drives with videos," he said. "We're going to have booklets and stickers and so on."

Damigo, a 30-year-old student and Iraq war vet, became well-known in alt-right circles last month, when he punched a female protester in Berkeley. He says it was self-defense. He got into white nationalism by reading books by the likes of former Klan leader David Duke while serving a five-year prison sentence for armed robbery.

Damigo says he needs to "change hearts and minds" of the next generation to realize his ultimate goal of a white-only space for whites in the U.S. "Forced diversity and multiculturalism" he said, is "unnatural" and whites need territory "that is ours ... where we can be ourselves."

Damigo dismisses those who call him a racist, saying it's a "cheap strategy to undermine legitimate European interests." But he concedes the controversy has been good for him.

"I mean sure, publicity is great," he said. "We found last year that all you had to do is put up some flyers and you'd get millions of dollars of coverage. So this is amazing."

His flyers have been posted at campuses from the University of California, Berkeley to the University of Massachusetts Boston, a heavily minority campus.

"I looked at these images, and I was incensed because it was such an attack on our students," said Joseph Brown, a UMass political science professor. "They were trying to be provocative; in Internet terms, they troll. They're trying to make themselves seem a lot bigger than they are."

Tony McAleer knows the strategy all too well, having spent 15 years in a white supremacist skinhead group before having a change of heart in the late 1990s. "Groups like this thrive on conflict," he said.

"I became an attention whore," said McAleer, who eventually left the movement and founded a group called Life After Hate to try to combat white supremacists groups.

"Every effort that was done to stymie what I was doing [gave me more] publicity and more recruits," he said. "It becomes this dance. You have to be careful not to feed the beast, and not to give them exactly what they seek."

Assessing the right response

The increased presence of these groups has left schools and students trying to walk an almost impossibly fine line as they struggle to determine the right response to white supremacists.

When white supremacist leaflets showed up at Purdue University, administrators said they didn't want to take the bait from "a minuscule fringe group [seeking] attention it does not deserve." Instead, they issued a short general statement about the white supremacists' views being "obviously inconsistent with the values and principles we believe in here at Purdue." But students were offended they didn't offer a more explicit condemnation and launched a sit-in.

At a recent meeting of campus activists at UMass Boston, students were split on the right response. Student Katharine O'Donnell didn't even want to talk about white supremacists. Not only does it give them what they want, she says, but it also serves to normalize them. And ultimately, she says, it would only distract students from their efforts to fight institutional racism.

"Responding to a poster is in my opinion very damaging rather than these greater issues that are causing problems every day," she said.

But other students pushed back, equally reluctant to let such hateful messages go unanswered.

"We have to let people know that this is not OK," said Gabriella Cartagena. "We have to do something about this. We can't just pretend they don't exist and continue to push them under the rug."

UMass Boston Chief Diversity Officer Georgianna Melendez says it's "a hard hair to split," especially for a university that tries to balance its commitment to free speech and open academic debate with its responsibility to make all students feel welcome and safe.

She says the white supremacist posters were ultimately removed from campus because they lacked required permission, but not because of their content.

"Everyone has a right to their own beliefs," she says. "We didn't take a position on their message except to say that we understand it's harmful to some members of our community, and we can't just let that go."

Like many schools, Melendez says UMass now has a kind of hate incident SWAT team ready to counter hateful messages and counsel hurt students. It includes an early alert system, a counter messaging response team and counselors on call.

So far, hate watch groups say white supremacists' efforts on campuses don't seem to be paying off. They say there is no evidence that the groups are gaining traction or members, despite their claims to the contrary. But Mcaleer, the former white supremacist, cautions it's not an easy thing to measure since most activity is online, not on the streets.

"It's all virtual," McAleer said. "It's like an iceberg. You see a bit of it at the top, and I don't think anybody has really measured how deep and how pervasive this group of disaffected kids is, and what exactly they're doing online."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.