University says it isn't aware of any invitations to white nationalist leader to speak on campus

Sunday, November 27, 2016 - 8:34pm

Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right,” a movement promoting white supremacist ideals, announced public speaking engagements at the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University in a Washington Post profile last Tuesday, though the University confirmed he has not been formally invited by the University or student groups.

“I think there’s going to be a huge crowd,” Spencer said in the article about the appearance.

Throughout October and November, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-women and anti-LGBTQ posters were found around campus featuring symbols associated with the alt-right movement, such as images of Pepe the Frog garbed in KKK robes and blackface. The meme was officially designated as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League in late September. The posters spurred numerous protests, faculty-sponsored discussions on campus climate and a campus-wide anti-hate speech campaign, but the University was unable to locate anyone who put up the flyers.

Spencer — who heads the National Policy Institute, a think tank that has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — told the Post he watched a video of about 1,000 students staging a walkout at the University two weeks ago and chanting, “No alt-right! No KKK! No racist USA!”

“We’re getting under their skin,” Spencer said. “I take a sadistic pleasure in that.”

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email statement that the University was not aware of any groups who have extended an email to Spencer. 

“We do not have any confirmation of a student group (or groups) inviting Mr. Spencer to U-M,” she wrote.

Texas A&M, the other school Spencer claimed to be visiting, also released a statement last Wednesday clarifying the appearance had not been cleared by university officials and distancing the school from any connection to Spencer.

“There has been deep concern expressed by our Aggie community about an individual planning to speak at our campus,” the statement reads. “Our leadership finds his views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values.”

Spencer made headlines the week after the election for hosting an alt-right gathering in Washington, D.C. celebrating President-elect Donald Trump’s victory with neo-Nazi salutes of “Hail Trump” and “Hail victory,” the English translation of the Nazi slogan “Sieg Heil.” Spencer’s speech at the gathering promoted refrains about white people “awakening to their own identity.”

Students on all ends of the political spectrum at the University similarly expressed concerns about the possibility of Spencer appearing on campus. LSA junior Grant Strobl, founding chairman of the University of Michigan chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a student organization that has invited provocative conservative speakers to campus, such as Ben Shapiro, stressed in an email interview that YAF was “obviously not” affiliated with alt-right figures like Spencer.

“Conservative ideas undermine and are not compatible with the alt-right,” he wrote. “Conservatism has no place for racism."

Rackham student Austin McCoy linked the racist posters repeatedly discovered on campus to white supremacists reaching out to disgruntled white students in the wake of  University President Mark Schissel's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan which aims to improve campus climate.

“The goal of white nationalists has been to appeal to disaffected white students who may be unhappy with the University's diversity initiatives,” he wrote in an email interview. “This is one of the reasons why the first set of racist posters appeared on Monday, September 26, the week before President Schlissel formally released the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (plan).”

McCoy wrote he also frequently undergoes severe Twitter backlash from alt-right accounts, highlighting a pattern of intense, often faceless, online harassment by alt-right social media bots. LSA freshman Kori Thomas, who tweeted of racist posters she discovered outside South Quad Residence Hall last month, faced dozens of tweets riddled with racial epithets and insults.

“White nationalists not only seek to create a safe space for themselves … but to provoke a backlash that may prove their claims that those opposed to racism and white supremacy oppose their free speech rights,” McCoy wrote.

Correction appended: This article has been updated to clarify the University's statement on Spencer.