When a white student at Auburn University in Alabama launched a hate group on campus one year ago, the school’s response seemed unequivocal — “reprehensible and unrepresentative,” the administration stated.
But last month when the group, the Auburn White Student Union, was invited to present its racist views at a prestigious Honors College forum, many on campus accused the university of essentially “sponsoring a hate group.”
As the university scrambled to again denounce the group, the Honors College — an elite body of “1,500 of the best and brightest students” at Auburn — scrubbed the event from its Web site. But not before 60 faculty, staff and students sent a blistering letter to President Steven Leath and Provost Bill Hardgrave:
“We are in favor of allowing free speech and a diversity of perspectives on Auburn's campus, and we encourage people from different sides of controversial issues to engage in dialogue and face tough questions. But there is a difference between allowing free speech and sponsoring a hate group, which is what the Auburn White Student Union has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
Auburn, a large land-grant college known for its powerhouse, racially integrated, football team, has wrestled with race relations for much of its history. With a student body of more than 27,000 that is 83 percent white and 7 percent black (in a state that is 73-26 white-black), the school became a target for white supremacists in April 2017 when alt-right founder Richard Spencer won a First Amendment lawsuit to speak. A federal judge ordered Auburn to allow the speech, which drew hundreds of protesters and led to scuffles and three arrests.
Spencer’s appearance was accompanied by the launch of a Website, “Whites of the Alt-Right Educating Auburn Gentiles for Liberation and Empowerment,” whose acronym, WAR EAGLE, is Auburn’s trademarked sports battle cry. The group distributed white supremacist and anti-semitic flyers on campus, and urged students to join its cause. The university denounced the group and it subsequently changed its name to the Auburn White Student Union.
Designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Auburn White Student Union is the only such group in the U.S. using a school name, according to the Auburn Plainsman.
Run by a student who goes by the name of Wyatt Mann, who denies that he is a racist, the White Student Union was invited by the Honors College to speak Feb. 26 at a screening of “Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War,” a documentary on white supremacy. Rather than a making a personal appearance, Mann spoke by Skype audio, according to people who were there.
Gaining access to such an important gathering had been a long-sought objective of alt-right advocates who for years traded white supremacist views on obscure internet sites. They yearned to inject their racist and radical views into mainstream discourse — to “normalize” their racist views, according to SPLC.
In fact, when the Honors College first announced the event, the Auburn White Student Union “retweeted the post and added, ‘We/establishment/now,fam’.”
As the editor of the Plainsman, the student newspaper, later wrote:
“By defending their invitation…some said the Honors College seemingly equated the White Student Union — an organization that advocates for an all-white society and ethnonationalism — with the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Lives Matter movement advocates an end to racism and police brutality.”
Historically, black campus groups date back to the 1960s when black students were part of the civil rights movement. They remain vibrant centers of cultural support for black students who remain minorities on virtually every major public university. The Black Lives Matter movement was spawned by police violence against African Americans.
Typically, white student unions are fueled by neo-Nazi blogs and other far-right social media. They form when white individuals perceive that people of color have gained some advantage. Facebook has been a gathering site for dozens of groups. In 2015, after the rise of Black Lives Matter the Washington Post counted 30 “white student unions” across the U.S. Most have disappeared. Yet the Auburn hate group has lasted a year.
After the Honors College incident, Auburn University issued a statement that it did not “support our campus becoming a platform” for white supremacy.