The Auburn White Student Union — a white supremacist, anti-semitic group that has attempted to attach itself with Auburn University — has been listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Map, an annual report of hate groups operating in the U.S.
The Auburn WSU is the only white student union group attached to a university or using a university's name listed on the Hate Map this year.
Since its appearance on campus in spring 2017, just weeks before a visit by white nationalist speaker Richard Spencer, the group has been recruiting students through instances of leafleting and flyering. Those flyers often include racist and xenophobic themes.
"The fact that they continue to have a presence, continue to recruit students and continue to have the attention of at least some students is frightening," said Lecia Brooks, an SPLC spokeswoman.
The SPLC, a Montgomery-based civil rights group, has tracked a steady rise in hate groups since 2014. In 2017, 954 hate groups were listed on the Hate Map — an increase of 37 hate groups or 4 percent over 2016 when 917 groups were listed.
"As we've seen over the last year, extremists on the far right and white nationalists, in particular, have become emboldened to say whatever racist or bigoted thing that can come from their mouth," Brooks said.
The SPLC began tracking hate groups and their locations in 1990.
White supremacist, neo-Nazi and anti-Muslim groups saw the most intense growth this year. Neo-Nazi groups, in particular, rose by 22 percent.
Brooks said the persistence of the Auburn White Student Union sets it apart from other white student groups across the country. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that more than 30 purported white student unions popped up in the U.S.
Surfacing at schools like the University of Missouri, Berkeley and New York University where students were faced with diversity issues and prominent national controversies, those groups were short-lived. Most only activated a Facebook page before shutting down months later.
Students on those campuses reported most of the white student unions that popped up in 2015 were fake, according to The Post. Auburn's, however, is not.
"Typically, they don't make it," Brooks said. "They can't get official sanction. They are marginalized in some way. It just turns out to be a couple of folks and they go away. But that's not what happened here. And they're bold too."
Auburn's WSU launched in April 2017, creating a website under the name "Whites of the Alt-Right Educating Auburn Gentiles for Liberation and Empowerment," or WAR EAGLE, connecting itself with Auburn's trademarked battle cry.
After being disavowed by the University, the group changed its name to Auburn White Student Union, removing any mention of War Eagle from its website and adding a disclaimer noting that they are not
Auburn's White Student Union is run by a student, The Plainsman has confirmed. While the group's president would not reveal his name, The Plainsman has reviewed identification that confirms his enrollment.
Since then, the group has on several occasions dropped flyers and posters across campus covered with racist, anti-Muslim and anti-semitic epithets.
"This group isn't an Auburn student organization, and we find the views expressed in their materials reprehensible and unrepresentative of those of the university," the University said in a statement last year about the group.
The Anti-Defamation League, which also tracks hate groups and hate activity, reported a 200 percent spike in white supremacist recruitment efforts on colleges campuses in 2017. In the fall of 2017, after white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of an anti-white nationalist protestor Heather Heyer, the ADL tracked a 258 percent increase in reports of white supremacist groups flyering college campuses.
Unlike Auburn, Brooks said the SPLC has found that most instances of flyering on college campuses are conducted by outside, non-student groups, particularly Vanguard America or Identity Evropa, two prominent white nationalist groups that have popped up in recent years.
The groups oppose multiculturalism and believe America should be an exclusively white nation, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Identity Evropa, founded in 2016, accounted for about half of all of the white nationalist activity on college campuses.
If Auburn's WSU persists, Brooks said it could be a rallying cry for other white nationalists on other college campuses.
"If they're successful in maintaining a presence as an actual group without being affiliated with the University then it could influence the creation of these white student unions across other campuses," Brooks said.
Aside from flyering, Auburn's WSU has attempted to infiltrate groups they perceive to be liberal, progressive or embracing of diversity. Their application for membership lists a question asking applicants whether they are members of SGA, SPLC on Campus, The Plainsman, War Eagle Girls
"They try to get their people to infiltrate their groups so they can disrupt them," Brooks said. "They're pretty dangerous."
The SPLC defines a hate group as "an organization that – based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities – has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics."
The SPLC and the ADL's hate group designations are often considered to be authorities by academia and the media, though they sometimes draw criticism. Brooks said it is important to keep track of white nationalist groups and disavow them.
"If we don't pay attention to it, you just validate it and you run the risk of normalizing the behavior of these group memberships," Brooks said.