White supremacist groups are targeting college campuses in the wake of Trump’s election

The Anti-Defamation League said the spike in hate group behavior is "alarming."

Neo-Nazis, KKK, and White Supremacists march through the University of Virginia campus, August 2017. CREDIT: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Neo-Nazis, KKK, and White Supremacists march through the University of Virginia campus, August 2017. CREDIT: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

White supremacist groups have stepped up their recruiting on college campuses over the past two years with a sharp increase in their presence and activism in the past year, a period that perfectly overlaps with the political presence and prominence of President Donald Trump, according to a new study released this week by the Anti-Defamation League.

Calling the spike in hate group behavior “alarming,” the ADL tallied a three-fold increase in propaganda efforts by a variety of hate groups and white nationalist organizations on hundreds of campuses nationwide. “White supremacists, particularly alt right groups, have been actively targeting U.S. college campuses since January 2016,” the report states. “The practice failed to get any real traction until the fall semester of 2016. Since then, propaganda efforts have increased dramatically.”

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The ADL recorded 346 incidents of white supremacist materials — fliers, stickers, banners, posters — littering college and university campuses since September 1, 2016. “These campaigns targeted 216 college campuses, from Ivy League schools to local community colleges, in 44 states and the District of Columbia,” the report said.

Oren Segal, director of ADL’s Center on Extremism, which conducted the study, said in an interview that the organization regularly monitors the activities of white supremacists and hate groups from mainstream media accounts and social media postings by white supremacist groups and leaders, as well as accounts by students and universities. The group noted an increase in activities over the past 18 months or so, prompting analysts to compare year-over-year findings. Specifically, the report noted:

  • 41 of the 346 incidents occurred during the fall semester of 2016 (Sept 1-Dec 31, 2016)
  • 147 of the 346 incidents were recorded during the fall semester of 2017 (Sept 1 – Dec 31, 2017)
  • 290 of the 346 incidents happened in 2017
  • 15 incidents have taken place in 2018

“The propaganda delivers a range of messages: it may promote a white supremacist group, or trumpet the urgent need to ‘save’ the white race,” the ADL report said. “Frequently, the propaganda attacks minority groups, including Jews, Blacks, Muslims, non-white immigrants, and the LGBT community.”

The report doesn’t draw a direct connection between the rise of white supremacist activity and Trump’s political ascendancy during the 2016 presidential campaign. To be sure, however, candidate Trump often appeared before predominately white audiences and often made overtly racist comments.

Segal acknowledged the comparison is a valid observation. “During the presidential campaign where anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, misogynistic rhetoric became a part of the discussion, white supremacist groups were celebrating [what Trump was saying],” he said. “We say that because that’s what [white supremacists] were saying among themselves.”

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ADL researchers found that one group, Identity Evropa or IE, accounted for nearly half of the total incidents in 2017. IE is a white supremacist organization, which as the ADL notes, hides its true leanings on social media by avoiding explicit racist imagery and language, preferring to showcase its messaging with pictures of classical sculptures of Michaelango’s David or Nicolas Coustou’s Julius Caesar.

Patrick Casey, CEO of IE, took issue with ADL’s depiction of his organization in an email interview with CNN earlier this week, saying the group isn’t a white supremacist organization, but he declined to comment further.

IE is run by Nathan Damigo, an Iraq war veteran who told CNN during a December 2016 interview that the group was targeting U.S. colleges to recruit younger members. “Prior to 1965, America was a white country, a country for European people,” Damigo told CNN on the campus of California State University at Stanislaus, where he was a student. “What’s actually happening right now is that we’re being replaced in our own country. We want to combat the diversity cult that has propagated itself not only on college campuses but throughout much of America.”

Hate crimes aren’t only prevalent on college campuses, but the rising incidents there comport with a larger pattern that dovetails with Trump’s hateful speech. In September, the FBI noted that reports of hate crimes rose by 4.6 percent in 2016Indeed, reports of hate crimes spiked the day after Trump was elected,  the Washington Post reported recently.

Segal noted that Trump’s racist rhetoric emboldens white supremacists, making them more comfortable to seek out college students and encourage them to join their ranks. “They feel now is the time to strike because they feel people are more open to their ideas,” he said, questioning whether that’s actually true. “I think that people need to keep in mind that hate groups of all kinds are and remain on the fringe of society.”