It was a Friday night in early November and Fox News host Tucker Carlson was preaching to the camera about leftists sowing "racial divisions" throughout America. Reacting to an article in The Washington Post about a principal at a Maryland high school investigating an incident in which someone posted fliers proclaiming, "It's Okay to Be White." Carlson claimed to see evidence of an anti-white agenda at play in the Post report. The segment was typical Fox News fodder, but with an exception: Carlson was pushing forward a meme promoted by white supremacists, and he was doing so exactly as they had intended him to do it.
"Being white by the way is not something you can control," Carlson said to the camera in a priggish tone. "Like any ethnicity, you're born with it. Which is why you shouldn't attack people for it, and yet the left does constantly—in case you haven't noticed."
Carlson skipped an important detail: The "It's Okay to Be White" fliers that have been papered on schools and public spaces throughout the U.S. and Canada this month are part of a prank that was promoted widely by neo-Nazi trolls and veteran white supremacists. Other conservative outlets have also covered the fliers in a straightforward manner, including Red State and the Daily Caller, which illustrates how America's openly racist far-right appears to use such spaces to promote a radical agenda.
Like many other trolling campaigns that have emerged in the era of President Donald Trump, "It's Okay to Be White" started on the imageboard site 4chan, a favorite online hub for young, white males who consider themselves part of the so-called alt-right movement. Anonymous users of that site posted a "game plan" urging people to hang "It's Okay to Be White" signs on college campuses in an attempt to bait people into an overreaction against an ostensibly benign statement. As one anonymous 4chan user envisioned it, media outlets would go "completely berserk" after the signs were discovered, revealing what the alt-right perceives as the media's anti-white agenda.
"Normies tune in to see what's going on, see the posters saying It's Okay to Be White and the media and leftists frothing at the mouth [sic]," the anonymous 4chan user wrote. "Credibility of far left campuses and media gets nuked, massive victory for the right in the culture war."
Writers for The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website directed at disaffected white teenage boys, joined in to promote the prank soon after it was launched, as did former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and other politically organized racists. Duke, for example, ran a headline on his website declaring, "It's OK to Be White Campaign Sweeping the Nation!" That appeared on November 2, a full day before Carlson aired his segment.
Rose City Antifa, a group based in Portland, Oregon that tracks radical far-right groups, infiltrated an "It's Okay to be White" discussion board on the gaming website Discord in early November, and found evidence of its more insidious undertones. One post, by a user named John Strasser, said: "IT'S OKAY TO HATE N-----S."
"It's fairly typical for white supremacists to speak one way in private and then present a cleaner image in public spaces for the point of attracting more people to their movement," a spokesperson for Rose City Antifa told Newsweek about the group's findings.
Such context was not present in conservative media reports about reactions to the fliers. These outlets claimed "leftists" were investigating the signs due to some kind of bias.
"I think with an article in Red State, it played right into their hands," Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the Center on Extremism of the Anti-Defamation League who has been documenting the "It's Okay to Be White" campaign, told Newsweek. "If they had slowed down a bit to think about it, maybe they would have done it differently."
The Red State story to which Pitcavage was referring was published on November 13, two weeks after the neo-Nazi and white supremacist connections to the campaign had been established.
"When fliers with the phrase began appearing in random places in various parts of America, the left began throwing tantrums because being okay with being white is considered racism," Red State writer Brandon Morse wrote.
Morse told Newsweek he was unaware that the meme was promoted by white supremacists.
"My article's point still stands," he wrote in an email.
Morse also argued that "anti-white racism is very real," a sentiment that was also expressed by Carlson through a Fox News Channel spokesperson.
"I've never been on the websites you mentioned below. We were commenting on a story that ran in The Washington Post," Carlson told Newsweek through the spokesperson. "But for the record, it is OK to be white. Just as it's OK to be black, Hispanic, Asian or any other race or color God created. None of it is a choice. To suggest there is something shameful or not OK about anyone's race is the very definition of racism."
A spokesperson for It's Going Down, an antifascist website that tracks the far-right, said that while the prank worked on people like Carlson, it had a limited impact in spreading any implicit racist agenda—outside of getting a rise from a few people.
"The intelligence behind it is that if you denounce it as the project of the 'Alt-Right' you then appear as someone that is 'anti-White,' an IGD spokesperson told Newsweek. "[But] it also just shows again how within the marketplace of ideas, these people don't really have very many."
Megan Squire, a professor of computing sciences at Elon University in North Carolina who is a civil rights activist, noted to Newsweek that the campaign is part of a larger effort to target universities with racist propaganda. Squire has created a detailed Google map of fliers related to hate groups that have been posted around college campuses this year. As of November 14, the map had documented 210 incidents. Squire said that far-right provocateurs target universities in part because "they feel the faculty members are brainwashing the students" against them.
"But the end result is that the students feel like they're in a perpetual state of distress," Squire said. "These kinds of fliers are actually very disturbing."