Last week, neo-Nazi and white supremacist graffiti was found daubed on the back of Eliot College on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus. While the perpetrator’s identity is currently unknown, this shouldn’t be considered an isolated or anomalous incident. Universities across the country are no strangers to acts like this, and we cannot tackle the problem if we underrate it.
The Tab reported nearly a year ago that racist graffiti reading ‘ban Islam’ alongside a swastika, was found in the library of Aberdeen University. This had followed the discovery of a spate of racist and homophobic graffiti throughout the campus. Islamophobic graffiti was found on the campus of the University of Birmingham on three separate occasions in 2015, with one involving a swastika defacing the University’s psychology block. Similarly, in October 2017, Exeter students on a night out wore clothes bearing provocative and offensive messages, as well as swastika emblems. In the same month, a hockey team from the University of York inked swastikas on their T-shirts for a social, alongside antisemitic and Islamophobic messages. A student reportedly hung a swastika banner at Central Saint Martins in November 2017. Rufaro Chisango, a Nottingham Trent student, documented the racist abuse she received from fellow students in a video that went viral in March 2018. Chants of ‘we hate the blacks’ and ‘sign the Brexit papers’ could be heard.
This is just a snapshot of the racist incidences and attitudes that have recently pervaded university campuses. Intolerance tinges the very fabric of university life, with attacks against a multitude of minorities. Blackface events are becoming increasingly common, including such sickening entertainment as a freshers’ “slave auction” in 2017 at Loughborough University. In London School of Economics meanwhile, a now-disbanded men’s rugby club participated in Nazi-themed drinking games on tour, at one point breaking a Jewish student’s nose.
This demonstrates that we should not trivialise the graffiti as the work of a malicious prankster rather than as a genuine call to fascism. Even if this case was some poor ‘joke’, the intentions of the perpetrator are irrelevant. It is not just edgy or offensive; they are the visual symbols of ideologies that literally pose existential threats to minorities. The intentions are invisible. Only the marks of hatred are left behind.
While the presence of pockets of Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of racism in universities should trouble us all, it would be inaccurate to entirely blame students for the revival of the far-right. It is not the failing of universities that such incidents have increased over the past few years. It is merely one more grim symptom of a wider culture that is increasingly tolerating and underestimating the resurgence of fascism. Just days ago, three people, including a neo-Nazi couple who had given their son the middle name ‘Adolf’, were convicted of being members of proscribed terror group National Action. The group had been banned by the government in the aftermath of the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016 by neo-Nazi Thomas Mair. Earlier this year, another plot in which National Action members planned to murder another Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, was uncovered. In February meanwhile, a neo-Nazi was convicted of planning an attack at a Pride event in Cumbria.
For years, we’ve failed to challenge the ideas that grow into terrorism, but merely placate them or outright deny them. A turning point was in 2010, when, while unknowingly still wearing a microphone, Gordon Brown described a Rochdale voter he had just spoken to as a ‘bigoted woman’. The infamous accident produced many an opinion piece condemning Brown, with writers proclaiming it a disaster, illustrative of the disconnect between politicians and voters. Collectively, it was argued that Brown and other politicians would have to pander to these lines of thought, rather than to jointly educate and reassure. And what had this Rochdale voter, Gillian Duffy, said? ‘But all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?’ Her questioning on immigration might not have been, in and of itself, ‘bigoted’. But why was it defended? Why couldn’t it be rigorously challenged? As someone who wouldn’t be sat here writing this article without the ‘flocking’ of Eastern European people to Britain, I feel alienated by it. I have seen how, unchecked, these attitudes amongst Brits have developed in the years since from suspicion to aggression. The incident helped to set a regressive precedent for British political discourse.
Our reluctance to face up to and challenge these ideas isn’t just a social failing, but a moral one. The Met Police have revealed that four far-right terror plots have been foiled since March last year, making these figures public to demonstrate the reality of British fascism. We cannot be complacent about this. The path to progress is tricky, long, and often painful. The graffiti on campus didn’t spring from a vacuum – the rise of the far-right presents a credible, and a very real, threat.