The Evergreen State College recently settled its tort claim with faculty members Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, who then resigned. Although their claim to have “received verbal and written hostility based on race” has been widely reported, very few media have covered the larger and terrifying racist backlash against their critics.
Most accounts of the Evergreen conflict leave out the “alt-right” (far-right) groups and websites targeting the college as an obvious target in a larger campaign to intimidate progressive higher education. As in Charlottesville, they argue that their free speech is violated by crazy mobs of “social justice warriors” practicing “reverse racism.”
Conservative state legislators also proposed privatizing Evergreen for “suppression of free speech.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration is moving to dismantle college affirmative action, claiming anti-white discrimination.
Weinstein argued that inviting whites to attend a voluntary Day of Absence activity off campus constituted “reverse racism,” even though the church had space for only 200 people out of Evergreen’s 2,800 white students. On May 26, three days after facing a student protest, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s FOX show under the sensational banner "All White People Leave Campus OR ELSE!!” Since Carlson has recently gained a large far-right following, the interview predictably poured gasoline on the fire.
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Also on May 26, a Portland far-right activist killed two men protecting two African American women (one of them Muslim). A month earlier, the killer had attended a “free-speech” rally led by Patriot Prayer. On June 1, Evergreen closed for three days after a “terroristic threat.” Two weeks later, Patriot Prayer rallied on campus, bearing racist and anti-Semitic symbols such as Pepe the frog and the Kekistan flag. The next day, Evergreen held its graduation off-campus for the first time.
As student Jacqueline Littleton observed, the FOX interview “became a call to arms for internet trolls and the alt-right. Online vigilantes…harassed us with hundreds of phone calls, anonymous texts and terrifyingly specific threats of violence that show they know where we live and work.”
Users of 4chan suggested ideas for attacking Evergreen, such as “Burn a cross on the campus,” “Put some signs up that say we support our white professors, (epithet for black people) get out,” “Swastika and 14/88 (white power) graffiti on campus,” and “mustard gas please.” This was only one of many such social media pages and videos, disproportionately targeting African American students, staff, and faculty.
What about the free speech of those who are working to create greater equity and diversity at our college? What about their ability to express their academic freedom without fear of intimidation and violence? What about the education of the students whose faculty and advisers were forced to go into hiding or hold classes in secret?
The massacre threat, the violent backgrounds of some Patriot Prayer followers, and the Portland and Charlottesville killings confirm the reality behind the threats. The resulting fear silenced many community members, preventing their viewpoints from reaching the media, crowded out by those with sensational rhetoric and access to media platforms.
But the Evergreen community will no longer be intimidated. Like recent crowds in Boston and San Francisco, we are exercising our free speech to condemn hate speech. We are working to strengthen Evergreen’s relatively mild equity and diversity programs. Our college has weathered previous propaganda campaigns, and found creative ways to learn across significant differences.
Higher education, as a key part of democracy, can be more engaging and resilient when it faces up to the challenges of our times.
Anne Fischel has taught media and community studies at Evergreen since 1989 and was the 2017 elected faculty graduation speaker. Zoltán Grossman has taught geography and Native studies at Evergreen since 2005. Lin Nelson is an emeritus faculty who taught sociology and environmental health at Evergreen during 1991-2016.