Just days after black tape was found placed across the portraits of African-American Harvard Law School professors, the national conversation about race on college campuses continued to make itself known at Harvard. One of its more troubling manifestations was the appearance of a Facebook page called the “White Student Union at Harvard University,” a group claiming to “defend the inherent rights of White Europeans.” Understandably, the page has caused alarm among students and administrators.
Similar cases of white student union Facebook groups have cropped up at more than 30 universities nationwide—some hoaxes, others perhaps not. The Harvard page’s origins are still unclear. Though the page administrator posted pictures of an anonymous student ID and flyers in the Yard, the involvement of Harvard students is still unconfirmed, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana has said that the Office of the General Counsel is investigating. Regardless of whether Harvard students are involved, the page’s creation is disturbing and should serve as a further opportunity to explore the issues that have recently dominated college campuses around the country.
Neither intellectually nor historically does the premise of a white student union make sense. Organizations based on ethnic and cultural traditions already exist in large numbers at Harvard. Often, these groups both celebrate heritage and provide space for historically marginalized groups to grapple with a broad range of issues. Several groups listed as “cultural and racial initiatives” on the Office of Student Life’s website are already concerned with ethnic and cultural traditions with European roots. The problem with the “White Student Union” is that its purpose is to oppose another movement, and in doing so to reaffirm harmful ideas of supremacy and separation. The Facebook page, with an “All Lives Matter” graphic as its profile picture, defines the group in opposition to “incessant lies spread about our people by the Black Lives Matter movement”—a bizarre, baseless characterization of a racial justice movement.
Further underscoring the intellectual bankruptcy of its message is the Facebook page’s links to the online magazine American Renaissance. The magazine, which focuses on issues of race in the United States, calls its ideology “race realism,” but it has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and described as the product of a “white supremacist think tank” by the Anti-Defamation League. A writer for an SPLC publication has said that the magazine’s founding editor “is the cultivated, cosmopolitan face of white supremacy. He is the guy who is providing the intellectual heft, in effect, to modern-day Klansmen.”
In short, the “White Students Union” has addressed itself to a non-existent problem, defined itself in opposition to productive engagement with race, and advertised its intellectual debt to hate groups. If they have succeeded in anything, the Facebook page and the broader backlash against frank discussions of racism of which it is a part have only underscored the need for these conversations, including at Harvard. These discussions will require respect, historical sense, and open-minds—attributes at the core of Harvard’s values, and conspicuously lacking on the controversial Facebook page.
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