BY DONNA YOUNG
This is a guest post by Donna Young, the guest editor of the November–December Academe issue. She is a law professor at Albany Law School and president of the Albany Law School AAUP chapter.
My editor’s note for the current issue of Academe, which focuses on the theme “Race on Campus,” begins with the statement, “All is not well on college and university campuses in the United States.” I wrote these words before Donald Trump became our president-elect. Now that Trump has mainstreamed hate and elevated it to the highest office in the land, my words have taken on new and ominous meaning.
Racist incidents on US campuses were already on the rise before the election of Donald Trump. But since the day after the presidential election, reports of campus bigotry have surged, and stories of racist violence have continued to stream in from across the country. There is now evidence, just two weeks after the election, that these acts of hate outnumber those that occurred after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many of these episodes have been accompanied by expressions of white supremacy and celebrations of Trump’s election. That many of the reported cases have happened on college and university campuses demands reflection, condemnation, and action.
While race on campus was already a critical issue, this issue has taken on a new urgency.
What will a Trump administration mean for those of us concerned about race on campus? And how might the recent acts of hate influence our opinions about student protests and activism?
Calls by professors and students to address systemic racism on campus now seem almost quaint given the increase in overt acts of intimidation by groups identifying with white supremacists and the KKK. Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist and senior counselor sends a powerful message that the new administration will be hostile to core academic values and educational norms—diversity, equality of opportunity, critical inquiry, academic freedom, and the search for truth. Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News became, in the words of the New York Times editorial board, “‘the platform for the alt-right,’ a loosely organized group of mostly young men who believe in white supremacy; oppose immigration, feminism and multiculturalism; and delight in harassing Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups by spewing shocking insults on social media.” It is no wonder that so many students and faculty members across the country—especially women, immigrants, people of Jewish or Muslim faith, and people of color—are troubled by the election results and fearful of what lies ahead.
The Trump campaign’s cozy relationship with fake news and “alt-right” media outlets demonstrates a contempt for the quest for truth and knowledge. We all have reason to be apprehensive that a Trump administration will encourage legislative initiatives that undermine higher education, encourage intimidation of campus activists and union organizers, and suppress critical debate. Unless colleges and universities are vigilant, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and homophobia may spread under the cover of “free speech.”
Trump’s victory is the logical conclusion of the same neoliberalism that had already come to permeate higher education in the United States. Trumpism is hostile to government and the public sphere and exalts privatization, deregulation, and austerity. One can only hope that Trump University does not provide a model for higher education for the incoming administration.
Trump’s ascendancy demands that we revisit how we understand student protest. As several contributors to the current issue of Academe argue, student protesters should not be dismissed as coddled, whiny millennials unprepared for encounters with ideas, opinions, or political beliefs that make them feel uncomfortable. The media’s fixation on trigger warnings and safe spaces has distracted from the hostile racial climate to which many of these students are responding. Students are protesting more than hurt feelings or challenges to their own worldview; their activism is fueled by the recognition and rejection of systems both on and off campus that set up barriers to the realization of the promises of higher education. Students have been sending us the message, which we have not always heard, that racism penetrates our lives in ways that are hidden from scrutiny but that nonetheless require attention.
The racist, misogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic intimidation we have seen since the election is not, in substance, new. It is an accelerated manifestation of what students have been protesting across campuses for the past year and, indeed, for decades before that. And far from being theoretical, it represents a clear and present danger to the safety of students and faculty members alike.
Faculty members and college leaders must continue to join with our students to resist retrograde attempts to diminish higher education for the common good.