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Colleges around the country are seeing an unprecedented increase in white supremacist activity. Alt-right groups are aggressively trying to recruit students, and schools and students are struggling with how to handle it all. NPR's Tovia Smith has our report.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Posters on buildings and bulletin boards at the University of Texas at Arlington implored students to, quote, "report illegal aliens. America is a white nation." At the University of Pennsylvania, flyers were headlined, imagine a Muslim-free America. Hate watch groups have tracked 150 incidents of white supremacist propaganda on campuses this year. Before that, it was such a rarity, no one was even counting.
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RICHARD SPENCER: Our time has come.
SMITH: White supremacist leaders are also coming to speak to students, as Richard Spencer did at Auburn University.
SPENCER: There is nothing that can stop an idea whose time has come, and that time is now.
OREN SEGAL: This is a new phenomenon that's very dangerous.
SMITH: Oren Segal, head of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, says white supremacists making a push for the mainstream often try to lure students with more opaque slogans like, serve your people, and, our destiny is ours.
SEGAL: They don't necessarily, like, shave their heads and wear swastika armbands. And what they're hoping is that people will maybe be interested because it's not so in your face.
SMITH: Indeed, one of those groups, Identity Evropa, describes itself as a fraternity, albeit only for people of, quote, "European, non-Semitic descent."
NATHAN DAMIGO: Next semester we're going to be setting up tables, handing out thumb drives with videos. We're going to have booklets and stickers and so on.
SMITH: Founder Nathan Damigo, a 30-year-old student and Iraq War vet, got into white nationalism while serving a five-year prison sentence for armed robbery. He wants whites in the U.S. to have white-only space, as he put it, where we can be ourselves. He says the kind of forced diversity he grew up with is unnatural.
DAMIGO: You know, you go over to your friend's house, and all of - their whole family is Latino or something like that. They're all speaking Spanish. You can't understand a single thing that's going on. So it's really awkward. It's just the reality.
SMITH: Damigo dismisses those who call him a racist, saying it's a, quote, "cheap strategy to undermine him." But he concedes the controversy has been good for him.
DAMIGO: Sure, publicity is great. We found last year that all you had to do is put up some flyers, and you'd get mass coverage, millions of dollars of coverage. So this is amazing.
SMITH: His flyers have been posted at campuses from the University of California, Berkeley, to the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
JOSEPH BROWN: I looked at these images, and I was incensed because it was really an attack on our students.
SMITH: UMass Professor Joseph Brown says the heavily minority campus was clearly not chosen because it was a good place for white supremacists to find sympathetic recruits.
BROWN: They were trying to be provocative. In internet terms, they troll. They're trying to make themselves seem a lot bigger than they are.
SMITH: It's all left schools and students trying to walk an almost impossibly fine line.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, so who wants to facilitate today?
SMITH: At a UMass meeting of campus activists, students struggle with what is the right response to white supremacists.
KATHARINE O'DONNELL: These fringe groups who put up a post just want attention. So I mean really you're giving them what they want.
SMITH: Student Katharine O'Donnell says getting sucked into a showdown with white supremacist also normalizes them and distracts from the fight against institutional racism.
O'DONNELL: Responding to a poster is, in my opinion, very damaging rather than these greater issues that are causing problems every single day.
SMITH: But other students like Gabriella Cartagena are equally reluctant to let such hateful messages go unanswered.
GABRIELLA CARTAGENA: We have to let people know that this is not OK. We have to do something about this. We can't just pretend they don't exist and continue to push them under the rug.
SMITH: The same debate played out after white supremacist leaflets showed up at Purdue University. Administrators said they didn't want to, quote, "take the bait from a fringe group," then issued a general statement about university values. But students demanding a more explicit condemnation launched a sit-in.
GEORGIANNA MELENDEZ: This is a hard hair to split.
SMITH: Especially says UMass chief diversity officer Georgianna Melendez for a university trying to balance its responsibility to make all students feel safe and welcome with its commitment to open debate and free speech, including from white supremacists.
MELENDEZ: We didn't take a position on their message except for to say that we understand that it's harmful to some members of our community. And we can't just let that go.
SMITH: Like many schools, Melendez says UMass now has a kind of hate incident SWAT team ready to counter hateful messages and comfort hurt students.
MELENDEZ: We have an email tree. And we send out an email saying, hey, you know, this is happening again. Let's make sure we have our little kit together and make sure the counseling office knows we may need them.
SMITH: For now, hate watch groups say white supremacist efforts on campuses don't seem to be paying off despite their claims to the contrary. But experts concede it's not an easy thing to track. And white supremacist gains, they say, need to be measured not only by membership but also by how much their message may be creeping further into the mainstream. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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