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White Student Unions: Are They Really a Threat?

Over the last several days a fire has erupted on social media as college students from around the country noticed new Facebook Pages popping up bearing their college mascot. From Portland State University to the University of Mississippi, 30 new White Student Unions were showing up bearing the usual talking points from the crossover sections of the radical right. Building on the idea that places like the Black Student Union or Asian Pacific Islander Student Unions are simply locations for ethnic interests and advocacy, the notion put forward here is that whites likewise need a place to advocate for themselves. Avoiding the reality that these ethnic student unions existed to advocate for oppressed minority students on campus, they use this as a gateway to lean in towards racialist politics that most will find familiar from the newly branded Alternative Right.

As the New York University WSU page said, “When people say that Students of Whiteness don’t face any unique challenges or obstacles we should think about this. White students are the only group to be labeled as “problematic” simply for existing and to have University classes dedicated to attacking their identity. This is why we are reclaiming the word whiteness and not letting the campus thought police define our identities for us.” NYU quickly countered to reveal that the page was created as a fraud, has no association with the university, and likely does not come from a student.

Rather than coming from constructive organizing, the call initially came from the virulent racist website The Daily Stormer, which has floated on its open use of racial slurs to become one of the most popular white nationalist websites in the world. Its editor, Andrew Anglin, presented this as an option to counter the growing anti-racist movement that is going to define 2015’s recap of campus organizing.

So, guys. Here’s the plan:

Make more of these White Student Union pages on Facebook for various universities. You don’t have to go there. Make one for Dartmouth, Princeton, etc. Go, do it now. If they won’t let it on Facebook, put it on tumblr or wordpress or whatever. Get it up, then forward links to the local media. Just fill it up with pro-White memes and “we’ve had enough of these people” rhetoric.

Extra points if you actually go to the school.

This was quickly pushed by a writer under the pen name of Reactionary Tree asking for people to simply make the Facebook page for their university to see what the left’s reaction would be. Reactionary Tree is well known on Neoreaction websites likes The Right Stuff where he tries to popularize the anti-Semitic ideas of former University of California Long Beach professor Kevin McDonald who has written a long series of books claiming that Judaism is a “group evolutionary strategy.” Forums like 4Chan began blowing up, responding in suit by pushing the call as far as conceivably possible. Pages began striking like lightening around, inspiring horrifying gazes among students who see this as the next step from the recent string of racial threats and attacks that have been happening on campuses around the country. Instead, the pages themselves are likely the project of just a few people completely outside of campus politics for each of these universities.

The White Student Union project itself is not a new idea and traces back into recent history of how the far-right attempts to co-opt radical edge that campus organizing has provided for the left. This was exactly the case when Matthew Heimbach brought the WSU idea to Maryland’s Townson University in 2012. Heimbach has been skating on the edges of the radical right for years when he first started a chapter of the ultraconservative Youth for Western Civilization to his transfer school. The group itself followed the lead of organizer Kevin DeAnna, a frequent contributor to Alternative Right and the Radix Journal, who described his work on right-wing cultural issues as being done in the organizing models set up in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. The group now holds former Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, known for his anti-immigrant views, as their honorary chairman. DeAnna went on to work for the Leadership Institute and later for World Net Daily, and is often brought on to radical right publications to talk about conventional GOP politics as he is really their only crossover point. DeAnna’s own racial politics are barely covered, the Heathen symbol Mjornir even adorning his neck in his staff picture at the Leadership Institute.

Heimbach began with YWC working on projects to, ironically, show support for the state of Israel, protest the Muslim student organization on campus, and bring people like Bay Buchanan to talk about immigration reform. He finally lost his advisor and had the group dropped as an officially university recognized organization when they chalked “White Pride” around campus. Heimbach decided to use this as an opportunity to ramp things up to creating a White Student Union and starting campus patrols looking for “black on white crime.” This brought in so much publicity that Heimbach quickly became a star in white nationalist circles, going on to form the Traditionalist Youth Network dedicated to setting up White Student Unions on other campuses and engaging in a concerted effort to coordinate other white nationalist groups.

The question about whether or not the White Student Union project has seen any success is ongoing as it is difficult to estimate actual results with their own security culture and propaganda creating a haze about the numbers. At any given time, it looks like no more than 2-3 WSUs actually existed nation wide from the Traditionalist Youth project, the main ones either set up directly by Heimbach or cultivated closely. An example of this is at the University of Indiana at Bloomington where Trad Youth associate Thomas Bulles has continued to try and keep this project alive, though because of connections to the KKK has become an easy target for anti-racist organizers.

What is clear as people respond to this recent string of WSU announcements is that there is no direct lineage between the project that Heimbach began and what we are seeing now other than the name. The real beginning of this latest wave is the recent racial controversies at Mizzou that led to their school president, Tim Wolfe, resigning amid massive student protests and hunger strikes. This contention has been a feeding ground for reactionaries looking to reframe the resurgence of anti-racist student activism as an ethnic battle whereby black students are lying about incidences of racism so as to target the larger white student body.

While it seems obvious to most that this is merely a media stunt, many of the “locals” are doubling down on their new identity. When confronted about their lack of constituents, the UC Berkeley White Student Union scheduled a protest action for November 30th. Others went down incredibly quickly, such as the UC Davis page that went up Sunday morning, only to be down by 7pm that evening.

The real consequence that could come from these pages is simply the opportunity to further frame outside social movements within their own unique lens. The Illni White Student Union, which was created for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began by identifying the Black Lives Matter movement at racial terrorism. That page was successfully removed, but many more are responding to things like the incidents of racial threats and violence at Mizzou and Portland’s Lewis and Clark University by trying to reframe these allegations as lies.

The test will be to see what results in the next couple weeks and if there is any relevant proof that organizing is actually happening on campuses. Pages like the University of North Carolina’s WSU claim that they will be attempting to get university recognition, a prospect that is unlikely. Following the model of Towson University’s project, it will instead be an entry point for white nationalists to organize with only a vanguard of one or two actual students. This allowed the WSU there to do things like host American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor in a packed talk on the “perils of diversity.” When they actually had their patrols, Heimbach was usually the only student in the group made up of people from outside organizations like the neo-Confederate League of the South. The environment from which this call comes, namely the Neoreaction sphere that is best known for trolling, memes, and pseudonyms, are more likely to call victory just on the press flare than from any actual organizing. Black Lives Matter organizers can also use this a huge tool as it defeats the color blind notions that many are countering campus demands with, revealing the reality of racist undercurrents and creating another impetus for new people to get involved.

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Shane Burley is an organizer and writer based in Portland, Oregon.  

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