Mirroring a nationwide trend, Chapman University and California State University, Fullerton, have been reeling from incidents viewed by many as hate crimes with administrators grappling on how to respond.
Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Youth Media program, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact Digital Editor Sonya Quick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Propaganda stickers of a white supremacist group surfaced several times on Chapman’s campus this semester, while a flyer promoting a Cal State Fullerton fraternity event that contained a racist slur circulated on social media.
Similar propaganda to that found at Chapman also showed up on the campuses of Saddleback College and the University of California, Irvine, in the spring.
College campuses across the country have seen an increase in racially charged incidents.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, propaganda efforts on college campuses in the United States have increased dramatically, with the total incidents of white supremacist propaganda increasing from 421 in 2017 to 1,187 in 2018.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociology and education professor at American University, has spent about 20 years researching radical beliefs in youth, especially white supremacist extremism.
“U.S. college campuses are often accused by the right of having a liberal bias, so attacking them is a way of attacking university expertise and knowledge more broadly,” said Miller-Idriss. She said that while college campuses are also targeted for the purpose of recruiting students into extremist groups, other public places have also seen an increase in paper propaganda fliers.
The increase in incidents have sparked different responses from the administrations of the affected universities, including Chapman and Cal State Fullerton.
On Aug. 26, the first day of classes for Chapman students, stickers and posters were found across campus covering flyers promoting the semester-long exhibit and series of events focused on the issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border called La Frontera.
The incident occurred soon after allegations surfaced against a Chapman law student accused of being a member of a white supremacist group, Identity Evropa – now the American Identity Movement. Chapman Dean of Students Jerry Price said the current law student and alleged white supremacist was investigated after the claims against him surfaced, but he had not violated the university’s student code of conduct or any laws.
“Not stolen, conquered,” said the stickers, which were from Patriot Front, a white supremacist group based in Texas. On Sept. 15, more stickers and posters were found on the campus.
Chapman Public Safety opened an investigation into the incidents, but so far have found no video footage leading to a suspect.
Glenn Pfeiffer, the Chapman provost, issued a statement to students regarding the appearance of the stickers and the views of Patriot Front.
“The ideology they represent is contrary to everything that Chapman stands for. We denounce this action and their message in the strongest possible way,” said Pfeiffer in the statement released in September.
Price also began holding forums for students to discuss the events.
Ramya Sinha, president of Chapman’s Black Student Union, said that the university has not done enough to condemn white supremacy on campus, especially amidst the outing of a Chapman law student as an alleged white supremacist this summer.
“The administration’s response and lack of was somewhat of a turning point for me in the way that I view the university and the administration because Chapman loves to pride itself on how hard they have been working on increasing diversity and inclusion yet they continually fail to help out students of color and neglect to help us feel safe,” said Sinha.
Sinha acknowledged the efforts of Chapman administration, but said the forums held by Price have not been enough to ignite real change on campus.
According to Sinha, a group of Chapman students have been working to create a hate crime protocol resolution, aiming to strengthen consequences for discriminatory acts.
Administrative and student responses to these incidents vary and white supremacy experts say there is no proven method, but that there are wrong ways to respond.
Pete Simi, professor of sociology at Chapman, began studying active white supremacists about 25 years ago.
“Not talking about these groups does not make them go away – it allows them to thrive,” said Simi. He said that a main misconception is that ignoring the incidents will limit the group’s publicity and attention, and that open and honest discussions need to happen about incidents.
“It’s a very real threat and you want to take it seriously, but not in a way that creates a moral panic,” said Simi.
Meanwhile, at Cal State Fullerton, the racist incident came directly from a student.
In October, Phi Sigma Kappa at the university posted an announcement for a fundraiser the fraternity was hosting that contained a racial slur. While the situation was being investigated, the member who created the flyer was expelled from the fraternity, according to published reports.
In the aftermath, the Black Student Union released 12 demands, including that the university respond to the appeals within four days.
Cal State Fullerton administration responded to each of the demands, calling the incident an “act of hate.” The letter was signed by university President Fram Virjee and other top level officials, including vice presidents, directors, and the president’s chief of staff.
In its efforts to change the campus climate, the administration agreed to design and implement a diversity training for all of Greek life on campus. It also agreed to review and update the university discrimination policy for disciplining students found in violation.
While administrators and students often do not agree on how to handle these incidents, experts can point campuses in the right direction.
In an op-ed written in December 2018, Miller-Idriss and co-author Jonathan Friedman explained that university responses without a strong stance against hate speech make the administration seem indifferent to the instances.
“Campus leaders have often made the mistake of feeling like if they are protecting free speech, they can’t also condemn hate speech,” said Miller-Idriss. She argued that administrations can condemn white supremacist propaganda as against the university’s stance while explaining that the racist messages are protected under free speech.