Education Leader and Expert Take on Growing White Nationalism in Schools

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Reports from the FBI, school administrators and advocacy groups that track hate incidents indicate that white nationalism, hate speech and other forms of bigoted extremism are on the rise across the United States.

Because schools are hubs of our communities – and often the center of interactions among students of diverse races, ethnicities and religions – white nationalists are increasingly targeting young people with their organizing and recruitment efforts.

Download the “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools” Toolkit

In a Facebook Live discussion last week, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García sat down with Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, to discuss what educators can do to confront white nationalism in schools.

They opened the discussion by first drawing distinctions between the terms “white supremacy” and “white nationalism,” which are sometimes used interchangeably but in fact have very distinct meanings.

“White supremacy is a system of disparities. It is the way our country was founded, based off of slavery, the genocide of Native peoples, the mistreatment of women,” said Ward. “White nationalism is something different. It is a social movement that has its roots, ironically, in the victory of the civil rights movement. White nationalism is a backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement… It is a social movement that seeks to create an all-white ethnic state in the United States.”

White nationalists target young people, said Ward, particularly in middle school and high school, because it’s an age when many students may feel awkward or anxious as they look to find their identity and seek a sense of belonging.

“White nationalists have sought to exploit that and to exploit youth who are trying to find themselves,” said Ward. “It’s so important for us to deal with bullying in school and create inclusive spaces where everyone can feel that they belong, whether they are 15-year-old trans Latina woman or a 17-year-old white male.”

Ward and García discussed how bullying and intimidation are often used by extremist groups in their recruitment efforts —and what educators should look for to counter such efforts.

Ward outlined three key indicators of possible white nationalist organizing in a school or community:

  • An increase in bigoted graffiti or other incidents clearly motivated by bias.
  • An increase in reports from students that they’re being called names based upon race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
  • Student questions that echo white nationalist rhetoric, such as using the term “social justice warrior” when discussing race, advocating for a “white pride” student group, or using anti-Semitic tropes, including the idea that Jews “control the world.”

In such instances, it may simply be students who are trying to understand their world who have been exposed broadly to racist ideas they may not understand as such. Or, Ward cautioned, “It may also show you that there is something happening on campus.”

He highlighted the “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools” toolkit, produced by the Western States Center, which includes strategies to counter white nationalist organizing and sample scenarios that schools frequently encounter. Whether a student has been found passing out white nationalist fliers or buttons on school property, or actively advocating for a “white pride” student group, the toolkit offers advice for parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and the wider community.

“What we’ve really encouraged teachers and administrators to do is to sit and talk with students to try to understand what it is that they are thinking,” said Ward. “Where did they learn this? Why do they believe that? Give them a chance to talk about it, because the more information we surface, the better we can intervene in these early moments.”

“As a community, we understand that we have much more in common that brings us together than divides us.”

– Eric Ward
Executive Director
Western States Center

It is important to have honest and sometimes difficult conversations with students about U.S. history, said García, including the legacies of slavery, racial conflict and segregation, because it all ripples down to the present.

“Our kids are out there now listening to politicians, listening to the president of the United States saying things that disturb them and disturb their families, said García. “And it seems to be encouraging and making normal hateful, hateful speech.”

It is critical for educators to address student concerns and ensure they feel heard and included, said Ward. Because it is in these formative moments, he noted, that students may get locked into an extremist ideology or community where they perceive they belong. And then it is that much harder to show them alternatives.

“It is also important to understand moments in history where people have crossed lines of race, religion, and gender to come together, he added. “As a community, we understand that we have much more in common that brings us together than divides us.”

Noting that the United States is a diverse society and diversity can create anxiety, Ward said such uneasy moments are often opportunities to have conversations around diversity and inclusion that help people grow and build community. Just as students and new educators may feel anxious walking into a classroom for the first time, he said, but then see that anxiety lessen as the class learns and grows together.

“I tell people don’t be afraid of history and uncomfortable history.” said Ward. “We should use moments of hate to raise up our values. We should see it as an opportunity… to figure out ways to have hard conversations about what’s happening in the present that students are thinking about.”

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