'Disgusted': ETSU president seeks public's help in 'OK to be white' investigation

Jonathan Roberts • Nov 4, 2019 at 6:41 PM

East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland is “disgusted” by the placement of “racist” fliers around the school’s campus on Friday.

In a statement issued Monday to students, faculty and staff, Noland said the “It’s Okay To Be White” fliers were “an attempt to seed division and discord” across college campuses nationally. He said the university was actively investigating the placement of the fliers and anyone with information was urged to call ETSU Public Safety at 423-439-4480.

“In an act of vandalism, fliers were placed on Borchuck Plaza over the memorial plaques of those five pioneering individuals who desegregated our institution during the 1950s,” Noland said in the statement. “It is clear that the posting and placement of these fliers was an attempt to create division in our community and I am disgusted by this act.”

Noland was referring to first five black students who broke the color barrier at what was East Tennessee State College in 1956 and 1958. A fountain on the plaza honors Elizabeth Watkins Crawford, George L. Nichols, Mary Luellen Owens Wagner, Eugene Caruthers and Clarence McKinney. Caruthers enrolled as a graduate student in 1956. The other four students enrolled as undergraduates in 1958 after graduating from Langston High School, Johnson City’s school for black children.

On Saturday, Noland told the Press the placement of the fliers was part of a national effort to “attack college campuses” while Student Government Association President Aamir Shaikh said the fliers don’t “represent the values of our campus.”

The Washington County Democratic Party also denounced the “racist” fliers, with party leader Kate Craig saying it is “not who we are.”

“These people acted in the shadows to elicit fear in the community, specifically targeting ETSU’s African American population,” Craig said. “As a community, it is our job to stand up and say this is not OK — that this is not who we are. Y’all means all.”

Ed Wolff, local NAACP chapter treasurer and host of the Black/White Dialogue, told the Press that America “has not resolved the racism issue and that, because of the atmosphere of this nation, it is becoming permissible and acceptable to do the kinds of things that happened at ETSU” Friday.

After hearing President Noland’s statement, Wolff said he “greatly respects Dr. Noland,” and but that he and other community leaders need to “make a firm commitment to educate themselves and the community about what is racism and its subtleties.”

“If we’re going to be a people who are unified, we have to understand the dynamics of this culture and area and work toward improving it,” Wolff said. 

On social media, many current and former ETSU students have called the fliers “shameful,” “ridiculous” and “embarrassing.”

The phrase “It’s Okay To Be White” was popularized on the website 4chan in late 2017, but, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has been used by white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups since early 2000. The fliers also appeared on multiple college campuses in 2017 and 2018, both around the same time as this year.

On the infamous 4chan board /pol/, dozens of anonymous commenters complained the fliers didn’t have as wide of a reach as in previous years, while others called the reactions to the fliers found on ETSU “the best.”

Noland said 17 faculty and staff members spent more than two hours Friday morning taking down the fliers, calling them “an affront to the university as a whole.”

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