In Smith Swastika Incident, One Professor Asks: 'Can We Stay Focused On The Fascists?'

Nov 27, 2019

Visiting Smith College professor Loretta Ross has been taking on neo-Nazis for decades. 

Back in the 1990s, while working at the Center for Democratic Renewal — a national anti-hate group — Ross received a call from a man named Floyd Cochran. 

“And immediately, without even thinking, I blurted out: the Floyd Cochran?” Ross said. “’Cause we monitored him. He was the national spokesman for the Aryan Nations.”

To Ross’s surprise, Cochran was seeking help. One of his sons had been born with a cleft palate, and a leader of the Aryan Nations argued that the child should be put to death. In the process of de-programming Cochran’s radical beliefs, Ross and Cochran became friends. 

“Floyd taught me a lot about the construction of whiteness and white supremacy,” Ross said, describing Cochran’s history of being bullied and how it played a part in his radicalization. 

Prior to befriending Cochran, Ross hadn’t been interested in her opponents’ experiences or points of view.

“I kind of felt like, if they wanted to hate me, I was OK hating them,” she said.

Flash forward a couple decades, and this black feminist leader now teaches a course on white supremacy to a few dozen students — most of them white — at Smith College.

“I like teaching young people how to subvert white supremacy without feeling guilty over being white,” Ross said. 

On a recent Tuesday, Ross looked to her students for clarification on some disturbing campus events. 

“Didn’t this campus just experience an anti-Semitic incident while I was out of town?” she asked. “What happened?”

Students told Ross the story of how, late last month, swastikas drawn in red Sharpie were discovered on the walls of three Smith College buildings in Northampton. (Days later, five swastikas were found in chalk on a building at UMass Amherst.) 

Students described the campus response. 

“It was really hard to hear some of the knee-jerk reactions of excuses,” one student said. “The idea that it couldn’t have been a Smith student.”  

Other students said the Smith administration had mishandled the racist graffiti, arguing that the school had a long history of only responding retroactively to problematic events.

Ross listened closely for a few minutes until finally she’d heard enough. 

“I don’t want to distract y’all from what is a student human right, which is to bash your university,” she said.

“Free speech,” one student piped up.  

“Yes,” Ross agreed, laughing. “Yes. But let’s be clear. Smith at worst is a problematic ally. We’re supposed to be talking about fascists. So unless you think the leadership of Smith is fascist, can we stay focused on the fascists?”

Loretta Ross.
Credit Ben James / NEPR

There’s a term Ross uses again and again: “threat assessment,” or “target assessment.” She says organizers and activists on the left can too easily overstate the harm caused by their potential allies, and that they often fail to accurately assess the risk posed by their true opponents. 

“So I want to advise students to have better target assessment,” Ross said. “Go after the Nazis. Don't go after the people you think should have better defended you from the Nazis. They may be a problem, but they’re not the ones trying to exterminate you.”

Neo-fascism is indeed on the rise, Ross said. But when it comes to the swastikas at Smith, the graffiti-writers’ vigilante tactics actually show the weakness of their position.

“The fact that they're choosing to do these Ku Klux Klan, night rider type things, where they come up in the middle of the night and they deface campus buildings, actually mean that we're winning,” she said.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, and now in a book she’s writing, Ross brings the question of target assessment to bear on a broader issue: the way people communicate dissent in what’s often referred to as the “call-out culture.”

“A call-out for me is when you choose to offer your judgment of someone else's thoughts, behaviors or actions, or looks in a way that publicly humiliates and shames them,” she said. 

Calling power-holders to account for their actions is necessary, Ross said. 

“But most calling-out that I criticize is horizontal,” she said, “between people of the same power status, or the same relative status, that seek to prove how woke or how politically correct they are.” 

Maryn Grasky, a student in Ross’s course on white supremacy, now questions the ways that she herself has called people out.

“I was thinking about the times I have [called people out] via social media, which has never been fruitful,” Grasky said. “It has only made me angrier. And it has usually resulted in me being blocked or something, and the person not changing their mind.” 

Ross’s advice is to take the grievances off social media. End the group pile-ons, she said. Meet with those you disagree with one-on-one, and begin the more challenging process of “calling in.”

“Calling-in is holding people accountable for things that they do that are problematic, but doing it in a way that is healing versus punishing,” she said.

You don’t build movements by ruining relationships, Ross said. Her book, “Calling In the Calling Out Culture: Detoxing Our Movement,” will be published in 2020.