Last week, I sent a string of relatively uncontroversial tweets in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, in which I sought to answer a question about mass shootings in the United States: Why are these crimes almost always carried out by white men? “It’s the white supremacist patriarchy, stupid,” I tweeted, before then diagnosing a sense of double entitlement — as white people and as men — that, when frustrated, can occasionally lead to violent consequences.
My argument was not new, but rather reflects decades of research on how race and gender function in our society. To be both white and male is to be subject to a potent cocktail of entitlement to economic and political power, and to dominate nonwhite and female bodies. When that entitlement is frustrated, it can lead to what the criminologist Mike King calls “aggrieved whiteness,” an ambient furor based on the idea that white Americans have become oppressed victims of politically correct multiculturalism.
In my view as a researcher and professor of politics, these tweets were neither provocative in tone nor controversial in content. Rather, the insight they provided felt all the more pressing now that President Trump has brought this aggrieved whiteness into daily headlines. As a scholar and teacher, giving context and depth to contemporary debates is an important part of what I do, and it’s a calling I take seriously. But more and more, professors like me are being targeted by a coordinated right-wing campaign to undermine our academic freedom — one that relies on misrepresentation and sometimes outright lying, and often puts us and our students in danger.
This time, the outrage machine geared up as it often does, with a minor conservative media outlet — in this case, the Daily Caller — chopping my tweets up into a misleading mishmash that transformed a nuanced diagnosis of white male frustration into an attack on white people in general. When the Daily Caller posted the article to Facebook, moreover, the intention was clearly to incite: “Absolutely unforgiveable” (sic) read the post, which by now has been shared nearly 2,000 times and commented upon more than 3,000 times.
Hate mail and death threats began to roll in. “I will beat your skull in till there is no tomorrow.” “Soon all you p‑‑‑‑‑s will get exactly what you deserve.” “Do the world a favor, and kill yourself … I’ll help you find death sooner than later.” One called me a “pig f‑‑‑er like Obama,” adding homophobic slurs for good measure. Many called me a “cuck” — a favorite racial and sexual insult of the alt-right — while others urged me to move to North Korea or Venezuela. One “love note from a WHITE American” wrongly identified me as a “greasy South American a‑‑hole.”
From there, the contagion was rapid, with Stephen Bannon’s Breitbart News and even Milo Yiannopoulos’s own website running their own cribbed copies of the same story. Then came FrontPage, the Blaze, the College Fix and the campus mercenaries at Turning Point. Soon, the manufactured story had hit the conspiratorial fringes of Infowars and online forums across the right: from “blue lives matter” to those preparing for the inevitable rapture.
Finally, the story crossed the mainstream-fringe barrier at its most permeable point: Fox News. Fox claimed that not only do I blame Trump for the Las Vegas massacre, but that I even somehow blame the victims. Threatening emails increased to a flood. An invitation to appear on Tucker Carlson’s show arrived in short order, only confirming the insular nature of the machine, which amplifies to a furious roar the same small group of voices. I declined.
I am by no means the first, and will not be the last target of this kind of smear campaign by conservatives aimed at academics. In every case, it is the same right-wing media outlets leading the charge, and campuses are increasingly the target. Universities and colleges have become the perfect target for such crusades: Purportedly hotbeds of multiculturalism, “safe spaces” and political correctness, campuses represent everything the resentful right is afraid of. At the same time that the right-wing media smears professors like myself, decrying our tenure and demanding our heads, they breathlessly chronicle the supposed intolerance of the left when confronted with provocative campus tours by Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Charles Murray, Ann Coulter and others.
And things aren’t letting up. While noteworthy cases such as Saida Grundy and Zandria Robinson in 2015 gave a glimpse of what was to come, the months since Trump’s election have seen a generalized assault on anti-racist academics. In May, Tommy Curry at Texas A&M was targeted for a years-old podcast; Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor was forced to cancel public events after threats following a commencement speech; and Johnny Eric Williams at Trinity College was targeted and suspended reposting someone else’s words on Facebook. Increasingly, leftist professors are being targeted for “things they never really said.” As Princeton’s Eddie Glaude has put it, when the right is so easily triggered by anti-racism and feminism, they make it perfectly clear who the “real snowflakes” are.
Caught in this wave of right-wing threats and provocations, many universities are scrambling to keep up with the coordinated onslaught. In the best of cases, university administrations and departments have publicly condemned threats against faculty and made clear that they do not cave to intimidation campaigns. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has even responded to our cases with new guidelines urging universities to resist the targeted online harassment of their faculty.
In response to such illegal threats of violence, Drexel has chosen to place me on administrative leave. Earlier in the week, I asked my students to explain the relation between white masculinity and mass killings, and they offered in a few short minutes of class discussion far more insight than any mainstream media outlet has offered all week. But now, their own academic freedom has been curtailed by their university, and they are unable to even attend the classes they registered for.
By bowing to pressure from racist internet trolls, Drexel has sent the wrong signal: That you can control a university’s curriculum with anonymous threats of violence. Such cowardice notwithstanding, I am prepared to take all necessary legal action to protect my academic freedom, tenure rights and most importantly, the rights of my students to learn in a safe environment where threats don’t hold sway over intellectual debate. Alongside organizations like the Campus Antifascist Network, I will continue to challenge white supremacists in an effort to make Drexel and all universities safe space for an intellectual debate among equals.