MSU community reacts to white supremacy on campus
In his years at MSU, neuroscience senior Kevin Taylor has become familiar with messages of white supremacy on campus. However, his concerns as a black student are different from those of other minority members.
He isn’t afraid of police officers, he said. He’s far more concerned about being attacked.
“As a black person, as a black man … I don’t want to be in a situation in which, in the dorms or in the hallways, where there are very minimal cameras,” Taylor said. “Anything could happen there.”
Throughout the 2017 fall semester, MSU reported multiple incidents of white supremacist actions on campus and at an administrative level.
Richard Spencer, known for his modern rebranding of white supremacy, requested to visit MSU’s campus in early August 2017 and was denied access to a meeting space on Aug. 17, 2017.
The university received backlash from Spencer and his lawyers, which eventually included a lawsuit from the third party, which tried to bring Spencer to campus.
In November 2017, students traveling across campus discovered a poster emblazoned with “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE.”
Following the poster’s attention from MSU students and faculty, another poster and stickers containing the phrase were found on a campus bike rack.
“Michigan State and college campuses across the country are microcosms of the greater society,” Paulette Granberry Russell, director of MSU’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, said in an email. “Controversies, conflict, and student activism is not new — nor is divisive, hateful and racist, offensive rhetoric new.”
There are two macro-level reasons for the incidents of white supremacy on MSU’s campus and Spencer’s request to visit, professor of sociology and director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at MSU Rubén Martinez said.
“The civil rights movement promoted inclusion at the same time that it addressed the issue, removed the issue of superiority from the psyche of white Americans,” Martinez said. “In other words, it was no longer considered valid to be deemed superior to peoples just on the basis of being white.
“I think that is something that has been lingering among some white Americans, with some degree of resentment.”
Secondly, Martinez said he believes free market capitalist policies in the U.S. during the last 40 years have diminished the middle class.
“There has been some downward mobility, there has been some major increases in poverty and so forth,” Martinez said. “It’s not non-whites who have created all those problems, economically, for (white Americans). It is the policies of the conservatives and the well-to-do, which have had that negative impact on the lives of many, many white Americans across the country.”
In the 1930s, anthropologists disproved the notion of race, Martinez said.
“Races do not exist, in reality, we construct them … I think what Spencer brings is a perspective that is not grounded in knowledge about the world, it is grounded in ideology,” he said.
Historically, the U.S. has always tagged more value to “whiteness,” associate professor of social relations and policy at James Madison College Anna Pegler-Gordon explained.
Cultural understandings of who can be an American have always been challenged, firstly by Native Americans, Pegler-Gordon said.
However, during the last 40 to 50 years, white Americans have started to listen more to the groups challenging their understanding.
“If someone in class said ‘the sky is green and is made of broccoli,’ nobody would say, ‘oh, well, we should seriously debate that as a matter of free speech,’” Pegler-Gordon said. “I think that it’s a good debate, to have, about white supremacy, but I don’t think we need to have a debate with white supremacy.”
In her experience, MSU students are always willing to engage in debate surrounding important topics, Pegler-Gordon said. The topic of recent white supremacy threatening campus is no different.
“The university is a place for the free exchange of ideas, but it’s also a place of scholarship,” she said. “Questioning whether the Holocaust occurred, questioning whether women should have the right to vote, questioning whether white people are superior to other racial groups … have basically been rejected, by every responsible scholar. They’ve been tested.”
White supremacists, such as Spencer, don’t bring this standard of scholarship and debate to universities, Pegler-Gordon explained.
“White supremacy itself is not about empowering the white person, it’s more or less about oppressing others,” Taylor said.
While Taylor hopes MSU will become stricter on white supremacist incidents, he said he understands it is a difficult task for the university to accomplish. Taylor advised minority and concerned students to be “wary of their surroundings.”
“If you make a stance on something, make sure you have others with you and behind you on that, both figuratively … and literally,” Taylor said.