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Saturday, November 26, 2022
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UW-Madison students protest racism on campus nearly 30 years ago. 

A history of hate on campus

Last year, UW-Madison faced a decision: what to do with spaces in the Memorial Union named after key alumni who were also members of a former powerful fraternity named “Ku Klux Klan.”

The Ku Klux Klan fraternity, which existed in the early 1920s, was made up entirely of white, Protestant men. Fraternity members were not part of the actual Ku Klux Klan. But the fact that UW-Madison allowed the organization to exist with the name was evil in itself, according to Stuart Levitan, a Madison-based historian and author. 

Though the fraternity did not actively participate in terrorism, they were involved in “Americanization Efforts,” such as teaching immigrants in the Greenbush neighborhood to cook and clean “properly.” 

Many members of the Ku Klux Klan Fraternity were notable alumni. Porter Butts, namesake of the Memorial Union gallery, founded the Wisconsin Student Union. Fredric March, of the Fredric March Play Circle, went on to become an Academy Award-winning actor. Another member of the fraternity, Philip Falk, was superintendent of Madison schools for 23 years.

The Ku Klux Klan Fraternity was not an outlier — the historical climate of the 1920s was openly racist. Woodrow Wilson, a segregationist, was president. Klan rallies and cross burnings in Racine would attract up to 4,000 people. In fact, in the mid-1920s, a fraternity run by actual Ku Klux Klan members, called Klansmen Be Loyal, was created and active at UW-Madison for some time.

Ku Klux Klan fraternity members were not alone in their racist attitudes on campus, according to Harvey Long, a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Studies.

To help fund the Memorial Union, the fraternity held minstrel shows where students applied blackface and performed racist depictions of African Americans. Other students made up the audience. 

Jewish students have also faced discrimination on campus.

“The degree of racism and anti-semitism … was just part and parcel of the university world at the time,” Levitan said. “[In] the 1924 Badger Yearbook [there was a] Jewish fraternity called the Menorah Society and the illustration is these two Jews with these big hooked noses and a bag of money at their feet … it's practically from Stormfront it's so anti-Semitic.”

Instances of anti-Semitic propaganda on campus stretched into recent years, and large numbers of students still do not feel completely at home, according to the 2016 Campus Climate report. While approximately 80 percent of students reported feeling welcome, safe and respected, only two-thirds of LGBQ+ students, students of color and students with disabilities and only half of transgender or nonbinary students felt the same way. 

Additionally, these students were more likely to report feeling a lack of respect from their peers and were two to three times more likely to report experiencing hostility or intimidation from others. 

For students of color especially, a racist campus may not be confined to the history books. 31,401 out of the total 42,030 students enrolled at UW-Madison are white, according to UW-Madison’s data digest for the 2017-’18 academic year. 

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Long said these findings may be surprising to those who do not experience discrimination because their perspective on what racism looks like may be different.

“I think the way that we’ve historically framed white supremacy and racism is this southern brand of racism of things that happen in like, Charlottesville,” Long said. “But we don’t necessarily make those connections to the institutionalized racism or the more covert everyday types of racism, which I say both are just as damaging to communities of color.”

Madison paints itself as a bastion of tolerance and liberalism, according to Jonathan Pollack, honorary scholar in UW-Madison’s Jewish Studies department and professor at Madison College. Bigoted statements, then, are often expressed covertly; for instance, Pollack asserts that anti-Semitic statements towards Jews are often expressed as a distaste for New Yorkers.  

“What is really frustrating for Jewish students and for other groups who have been marginalized over the history of UW-Madison is that at the same time ... Madison has patted itself on the back on how tolerant it is,” Pollack said. 

Overall, outward racist or anti-Semitic comments or slurs are relatively rare, said Markus Brauer, a UW-Madison social psychology professor who specializes in intergroup attitudes and behaviors, diversity and inclusiveness.  

In reality, minority students in Brauer’s focus groups often report that what bothers them most is social exclusion on campus.

“When the professor asks them to form groups for a group project in the classroom, no one asks them to be part of it,” said Brauer.  “The students [from] underrepresented groups tell us this is what bothers [them] most, not explicit, very visible forms of discrimination.”       

However, a lack of outward and extreme discrimination on the UW-Madison campus, according to Brauer, is also a good thing because strong social norms, such as anti-racist norms, lead to a decrease in racist behaviors.

Yet Long is unsure whether the campus climate has changed much and believes progress is difficult to assess. He believes white supremacy survives on campus, saying it is baked into the “cake” of American culture and nationhood.

Some pro-diversity progress has already been made and more is on its way. For example, a resolution was passed last year to remove Butts and March’s names from campus spaces, Wisconsin Union Vice President of External Relations Brennan Bahr said.

Other goals include creating an interactive kiosk that will detail Butts’s legacy while also confronting his membership in the Ku Klux Klan fraternity. Porter Butts may not have wanted to be associated with the actual KKK, since the fraternity changed their name to “Tumas” around the time he joined. 

New plans include a Fredric March research group, as not much is known about him and his connections to the Ku Klux Klan fraternity. 

Furthermore, social justice internship positions will be created with the goal of making the Union more inclusive. Lastly, the Union will partner with the Multicultural Student Center in an effort to make buildings spaces for underrepresented students.

“It’s to make sure that this is not a piece of history that we bring with us into the future,” Bahr said.

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