Several posters by a white supremacy group appeared around Purdue's campus last week.
The images appeared last week, plastered on walls and poles at Purdue University’s campus in West Lafayette, my alma mater. “We have a right to exist,” proclaims one poster featuring a drawing of an Aryan-looking man and woman gazing stoically at the viewer. In another, a white woman and child stand together with the words: “Defending your people is a social duty not an anti-social crime.”
A third poster portrays a white male wearing shackles. The chain linking his wrists reads “white guilt” and and the poster states, “Free yourself from cultural Marxism.”
The group responsible for these posters calls itself “The American Vanguard,” a Southern California-based white supremacist group that claims to have chapters across the West, Midwest, and South. The site includes a manifesto by “Casus Belli” (Latin for “a case for war”), stating: “White America is under attack. . . . As we apply to colleges and enter the workforce, we see the corrupt System that has been forced on us, one that blatantly works against White Americans.” The stated goal is to fight for “White America,” which can only happen if “we win the hearts and minds of our fellow White youth.”
While I doubt there will be long lines to sign up for American Vanguard, my gut tells me that their posters and message will find sympathizers and future acolytes. Purdue’s student population is overwhelmingly white, American, and male (Purdue is 58 percent male and 79 percent white).
Juanita Crider, a current doctoral student in American Studies, agrees. “It has been my observation that campus climate continues to be an issue for students of color.” Ms. Crider, who is African American, also notes “The majority of students here have minimal day to day contact with people who are not like them.”
While the rise of white supremacy groups is horrific, we really shouldn’t be surprised by it. The American Vanguard launched this particular hate campaign in the days leading up to the presidential election, in which we had a candidate refuse to disavow an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader and recalcitrant white supremacist David Duke. The now president-elect has feigned ignorance about current Klan leadership’s cheers for his rhetoric. American Vanguard’s manifesto is perfectly primed to find adherents in this college climate.
Now, more than ever, we must discuss race and racism openly in order to dispel the myth that whiteness is a victim status, and to have real discussions of what equality for all means. An important step is to get rid of the insidious notion of colorblindness, a coded means by which white Americans avoid the discussion of race and racism by claiming to not see color, and that to see color is to be racist. The result is that white people do not have to acknowledge the inequities that exist, and when racial minorities discuss race they are charged with inciting racism. In the minds of many white Americans, people succeed by merit alone. When someone points out the problems of institutionalized racism and discrimination, they are tagged as “racist” for insisting that color does matter in our so-called colorblind democracy.
The American Vanguard uses the pronoun “our,” to say that America is under attack by racial minorities, non-Christians, and non-white immigrants. The group’s proclamation “We have a right to exist” plays into a “colorblind” mindset that fails to see the racism beneath the claim of white victimhood. It aims to make white, college-aged youth feel victimized and belittled because of their whiteness while paradoxically claiming the idea of their superiority over those who are not white and Christian.
Purdue University’s president, and former Republican Indiana state governor Mitch Daniels released a statement after the fliers were found on campus. Daniels labeled the group’s views as “inconsistent with the values and principles we believe here at Purdue.” He stated that the fliers were “a transparent effort to bait people into overreacting, thereby giving a miniscule fringe group attention it does not deserve.”
The statement was met with disappointment by faculty, staff and students, who felt it was insufficient especially in failing to address why these posters appeared in the first place, and why some white students may not understand the feelings of students of color. Crider puts it this way:
“If these students have not been exposed to history or literature outside their cultural or ethnic experience, they have no context to aid them in understanding or engaging students of color who are feeling vulnerable.”
The paradox is staggering—and all too familiar. Anyone paying attention can see how racial rhetoric in the presidential campaign opened to door to hate groups on Purdue’s campus.
Lisa Beringer is an Assistant Professor at Ivy Tech Community College and a graduate of Purdue University.