PHILADELPHIA — George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University, is facing death threats after a series of satirical tweets about “white genocide,” a concept invented by white supremacists.
The university is also facing criticism for its refusal to wholeheartedly support the free speech rights of its employee in the midst of an onslaught of complaints driven, in part, by far-right news outlets like Breitbart.
“All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide,” Ciccariello-Maher tweeted on Saturday, according to a report published Monday by The Philadelphia Inquirer. A second tweet created on Sunday read: “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.”
Ciccariello-Maher teaches in Drexel’s Department of History and Politics. According to his university bio, he often appears in the media to comment on “social movements, particularly in Latin America” and also frequently writes about “race, racism, prisons and policing in the U.S. and internationally.”
A backlash to his tweets quickly began on social media and spread to the conservative media, leading Ciccariello-Maher to make his Twitter account private, allowing only users he specifies to follow and read his tweets.
Although American universities have traditionally defended the free speech rights of tenured professors, Drexel condemned Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets in a statement published on Sunday.
“While the University recognizes the right of its faculty to freely express their thoughts and opinions in public debate, Professor Ciccariello-Maher’s comments are utterly reprehensible, deeply disturbing, and do not in any way reflect the values of the University,” the statement read.
Ciccariello-Maher defended his tweets in an email sent to the Inquirer on Monday:
“On Christmas Eve, I sent a satirical tweet about an imaginary concept, ‘white genocide.’ For those who haven’t bothered to do their research, ‘white genocide’ is an idea invented by white supremacists and used to denounce everything from interracial relationships to multicultural policies … It is a figment of the racist imagination, it should be mocked, and I’m glad to have mocked it.”
While genocide is a real and serious war crime in which a specific racial or ethnic group is systematically murdered or oppressed, “white genocide” is a conspiracy theory invented by racist white nationalists and applied to almost any policy or behavior which improves diversity and interracial understanding.
The term 'white genocide' was invented by white supremacist David Lane. This is his profile (from the ADL). 2/ pic.twitter.com/3PN28DwuTk
— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) December 26, 2016
“I woke up Christmas day to hundreds of emails, including many death threats directed at me and my family,” Ciccariello-Maher told Alternet on Monday.
Sarah Lazare, a staff writer at Alternet, found more threats on Breitbart, a prominent far-right nationalist news site:
“The comments section of one article about the tweet, published on the white nationalist outlet Breitbart, includes death threats against Ciccariello-Maher, with one post reading, ‘Shouldn’t somebody kill him? Before he breeds?’ The comments section also includes hateful remarks disparaging LGBTQ people and African Americans.”
Breitbart’s racist and xenophobic reporting has been subject to increased scrutiny since President-elect Donald Trump named former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon as his chief strategist in November.
Many Twitter users also sided with Ciccariello-Maher and a Change.org petition in his defense had more than 8,000 signtures as of Tuesday afternoon.
Michael Hiltzik, a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist at the Los Angeles Times, suggested that Drexel’s failure to support its professor means the school “flunks the free speech test.”
“One can’t ‘recognize’ the right of free speech yet assert that this particular exercise of free speech does not ‘in any way reflect the values of the University,’” Hiltzik wrote on Tuesday.
“Such cases are worrisome harbingers of the future of academic freedom in America.”
The Ciccariello-Maher incident occurs amid heightened tension over freedom of speech in academic circles, as left-leaning and progressive teachers are increasingly under pressure. Last month, Turning Point USA, an NGO with links to the Republican Party, launched a “Professor Watchlist” website which encourages students to turn in their teachers if they spread liberal and humanitarian political ideas. Ciccariello-Maher is one of the roughly 200 professors included on the list.