The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s okay to be white’ signs and stickers appear on campuses and streets across the country

Posters proclaiming “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE” have been appearing on college campuses and on city streets across the country this week, prompted by an anonymous chat-room comment that suggested the message would feed social unrest and sway white Americans to far-right ideologies.

Since Tuesday, the posters have been spotted in Rocky River, Ohio; at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.; at Tulane University in New Orleans; at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.; around college-campus rich Cambridge, Mass., including the Harvard Yard and at the University of Alberta in Canada. In most cases, schools and cities have pulled the posters down, but the message has continued to spread in images and hashtags across Twitter and other social media platforms, even prompting a related Know Your Meme entry detailing its Internet origins and cultural backstory.

The signs began as a suggestion on the online chat space 4chan last month, a kind of Internet prank laced with ennui and cynicism about race and white identity in modern-day America.

A series of messages said people should print signs reading “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE,” post them on college campuses and elsewhere, and then stand back and watch the fun begin. News reports would draw attention to the posters, the writer behind the idea predicted. Then white Americans derisively referred to as “normies” in the white nationalist ecosphere will discover that American journalists and “lefties” hate white people. In the process, normies will stop regarding news outlets as credible. That would deal a damaging blow in the culture war, the post said, inevitably converting more “normies” to the white nationalist, alt-right side. It could be that easy to seed social disruption, the post implied.

The episode is indicative of the efforts white-nationalist groups have made to recruit in and around the nation’s college campuses and other mainstream settings with claims of growing white maltreatment and expanding anti-white discrimination. The white victim construct is one that experts say, not so long ago, only had traction in avowed white supremacists, segregationists and neo-Nazi circles. But today, it animates open and anonymous public discussions of race and shapes the nation’s politics.

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In the period just after the 2016 election, investigators with the Southern Poverty Law Center documented a surge in posters and recruitment activity by white-nationalist organizations on 150 college and university campuses. White nationalist organizations regard colleges as spaces where millions of young Americans, without their intervention, will be inculcated with the ideas of valuing diversity, seeking and creating inclusion and equity, the investigators found. And, on campus, white-nationalist groups have made every effort to counter that with well-dressed, tech-savvy and articulate spokesmen who recast equality and cultural sensitivity as a damaging loss for white Americans.

In the months immediately after the November 2008 election, the country saw an increase in both hate crimes and hate group membership, said Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist and research professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies. For those already worried about what they view as the unacceptable price of equity, an end to white control, the country’s decision to elect its first black president was a chilling moment. But these Americans’ perception that equity is effectively anti-white discrimination appears to have been adopted by a bigger portion of the American white population, Valentino said.

“Whites inside various supremacist groups and movements believe, and have for a long time, that they are part of a victimized racial group,” said Valentino. “Far right, white nationalist, neo-Nazis and their ilk have always had this sense of aggrievement, the zero-sum mentality that says as other groups gain rights or options and opportunities from which they have been excluded, whites necessarily lose and this can not be tolerated. But research, my research and several other initiatives, suggest that the white sense of victimization, and by that I mean the perception of victimization, has been increasing dramatically since Obama’s election. At this point, it’s not a majority of whites, but it has grown dramatically outside those extremist groups.”

The sense that white Americans have become the lone group in America unable to attend to group interests shows up in those 4chan chat threads and Twitter timelines, too. During the 2016 election, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump even retweeted a message from a like-minded account littered with inaccurate data on race and murder. On the campaign trail, Trump said with some regularity that life was safer and all-around better at a time in America when no one had to concern themselves with being “politically correct.”

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The factual basis for claims that white Americans are collectively suffering is difficult to find. On average, they continue to enjoy better income, personal wealth reserves, health, health care, housing, schools than any other group. White Americans also make up 90 percent of the nation’s elected officials despite making up about 61 percent of the total population.

At Concordia College, one of the campuses where the “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE” placards and stickers were found this week, removed them. Concordia officials said in a statement they did so because the signs did not adhere to campus display policies, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. Concordia President William Craft said he wanted to invite the campus community to discuss the posters at a public forum the school will organize. He also pointed out that the posters were distinguished, among other things, for a lack of information, even the name of the group behind them.

On Wednesday, Craft posted a longer statement on the school’s Facebook page.

“There is and must be a place here for people of different ethnicities and skin colors, of different faith traditions or no faith traditions, of different nations, of different gender identities, of different political convictions,” he wrote. “In that sense, it is indeed OK to be white — and to be black, to be brown, to be Christian, to be Muslim, to be straight, to be gay, to be conservative, to be liberal, and so on. We are stronger for this diversity of identities.”