December 6, 2016
I’m a Black liberal tenure-track professor who teaches journalism at a historically black university in Baltimore, Maryland. Unlike many of my colleagues of color who teach at predominantly white colleges, I’m not experiencing as much angst and vulnerability about Donald Trump’s election. Despite my specific institutional setting, I’ve still been thinking about what a Trump presidency will mean for those of us who work on America’s multi-century foundational problem: racism.
A little over a year ago, I told the magazine editor of this magazine—who is white—that I thought Donald Trump was a viable threat, that he could really win the GOP nomination. At the time, she wasn’t fully convinced. Holding on to narratives of American exceptionalism and racial progress, thanks to Barack Obama’s election and re-election, many people dismissed the possibility of an explicit bigot moving into the White House in the 21st century. Others, surely because of their unconditional faith in American democracy, wrote Trump off as a lark that would ultimately self-destruct.
Like many black Americans, I wasn’t surprised that Trump won on a platform primarily based on hate. Black folks have been on the receiving end of hate in this country for centuries. Like clockwork, with every civil-rights victory, we’ve seen it met with almost immediate virulent racial backlash. And here we are again, watching as a bunch of geriatric white males prepare to blow everything up because they are angry that people of color, women, and LGBTQ folks got a few crumbs over the last 40 years. And despite all the calls for “unity” and attempts by the punditocracy to normalize Trump, America has never been a “united” country. The current wave of racial resentment isn’t suddenly being ushered in by a white supremacist and his new cabinet of bigots.
Long before the Orange Menace was elected, Black churches have been bombed and burned. Unarmed Black adults and children have been beaten and killed by cops and by citizens, and then blamed for their own deaths. The Voting Rights Act has been eroded and gerrymandering has ensured voter suppression. Synagogues have been tagged with swastikas. Muslim women have had their hijabs yanked off their heads, and been attacked, even torched. Muslims and Mexicans have been threatened with deportation. LGBTQ community has never felt safe or protected.
On college campuses, racial hostility has taken many forms, some more obvious than others. While many colleges produce marketing materials that look like old-school Benetton ads, and talk a good game about diversity and inclusion, campuses are increasingly hostile to students and faculty of color. Black professors are being silenced and their job security threatened for calling out racism online and in other forums. Students of color are being harassed and intimidated because little has been done to change the toxic and violent campus culture.
And yet, there is a certain irony that white males will invoke victimhood in colleges and universities today, demanding protection from conversations about white privilege and rape culture. Their Fox-watching helicopter parents are ready and waiting, making sure that their feelings aren’t hurt by the truth.
Let’s face it: This is a nation that was founded on and continually trades on hate and resentment, and colleges are not exempt.
Like other faculty of color, I have long known that the ivory tower is a racist place. The media focused on Trump’s appeal to the white working class, but of course he won big with college-educated white people—a number of his “alt-right” appointees attended elite institutions. White supremacy isn’t exclusive to the disillusioned, under-educated, and disenfranchised. As an academic friend recently reminded me, too many people think that white supremacists are cartoonish rednecks or skinheads. It takes all kinds: They are moderates, centrists, liberal egalitarians, progressives, socialists, and academics who reject vulgar expressions of racism while tacitly upholding the superiority of European ideals and everyday practices at their institutions.
I don’t wish to be a political Nostradamus (and I was not the only one—former White House adviser Van Jones warned America that Trump could very well be our next president), the immediate and long-term danger is clear and present.
Yet, with the racist writing on the wall, Trump’s 11/9 victory has thrown a lot of well-meaning white people on campuses into a tailspin. Several academic organizations released statements expressing their concerns about the climate Trump’s presidency would create. The faculty of Union Theological Seminary, for example, wrote an open letter expressing their “deep concerns” about the diplomatic, financial, and cultural consequences of the election. They called Trump’s rhetoric against women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community “most unacceptable and outrageous,” and committed to uniting to work for goodness and justice.
Many professors have predicted a catastrophe for academic freedom and the sciences. Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, said that academics “have to be distressed at the anti-intellectual wave that Trump rode, the proud flaunting of facts and big-lie political tactics,” while he and some colleagues work to teach students to take a critical and analytical approach to values and politics based on evidence and anchored in “honest discourse and open-minded consideration of the facts.”
At some institutions, faculty canceled classes, or changed lesson plans to discuss the election upset. Columbia, Harvard, and Yale, for example, offered students the option of extending or postponing their midterms. Some students complained in the Columbia Daily Spectator that professors who tried to hold class as usual were too distracted to teach effectively and should have just thrown away the lesson plan and led a spontaneous discussion about what was on everyone’s mind.
At Towson University in Baltimore, faculty and students held an anti-Trump walk-out to meet in Freedom Square and denounce Trump and his supporters.
A post-election conversation at the 41st Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) drew more than 250 Black academics and about a dozen non-Black allies from around the country to discuss “Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education in Challenging Times: A Conversation for, by, and about Black Faculty, Graduate Students, and Staff-Administrators.”
A story cross-posted on The Root and The Hechinger Report, describes the conversation as focusing more on the ongoing racism in academe, though the specter of Trump as leader of the free world drew strong reactions. “The rarity of the moment, just after Donald Trump was elected … created a family emergency, reunion-like atmosphere in which faculty spoke passionately about a range of issues including their children, tears they’ve shed after the numerous extrajudicial killings and their relationships to the enduring whiteness of the academy. One female professor said that she’s “had my Donald Trumps right in the meetings.”
While so much of the media coverage has centered white liberal voices, from the academy and beyond, and emphasized their shock and fear of an end to peace and tranquility, the voices of scholars and students of color paint a different picture: one of persistent racism that will surely worsen as Trump guts higher education, and the civil-rights division of the Justice Department. His victory has already prompted a spike in bias crimes against people of color on campuses, with students and professors facing a nation where “making a America great again” means living with more racial slurs, hostility, and threats of violence.
The New York Times reported that at Texas State University, fliers showing gun-and-flag-wielding men in camouflage were distributed in men’s restrooms throughout campus, saying “Now that our man Trump is elected, time to organize tar-and-feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off that diversity garbage.”
In this environment, shock and performative outrage will not be sufficient. Widespread efforts to understand the anger and anxiety of the white working class will not save us. Anthologies dedicated to the Ohio voter, symposia on white Wisconsin, and endless writings on the Trump voter, are not going to protect faculty put on watchlists, undocumented students from being deported, Black faculty and students from increased daily racial hostility, and countless other promises from the Trump administration.
What will form a resistance to an administration that looks like a marriage between Bull Connor, George Wallace, and Andrew Jackson?
Action! We need a commitment to racial justice that extends beyond brochures, diversity plans, and inclusion czars. We don’t need white “allies.” We need accomplices who will do more than shaking their heads at the racism “over there,” or who refuse to do the work and become parasites on the cultural and intellectual labor of scholars of color because they don’t believe that race work is also their duty.
Studying civil-rights movement, empowering students, faculty, and administrators to understand the neurosis of white racism that is the existential threat to us all, and dare I say “identity politics” that extends beyond the white working-class is what is needed now more than ever.
Yes, identity politics and its efforts to understand injustice, the foreclosure on civil rights, inequality, and segregation is what will set us free.
Never mind that right-wing columnist George Will recently blasted liberal academia for its role in electing Trump. According to Will, Trump’s ascendance was the culmination of 40 years of identity politics, ethnic studies, and political correctness.
Sorry, George. We need more ethnic studies classes; we need more faculty whose teaching and research will provide the tools for resisting the white supremacist agenda of the Trump administration at every turn. In the face of increased hate crimes, we will need administration to move beyond their commitment to diversity, to maintaining free speech and a welcoming campus, to decide what our future looks like.
White liberals, whose embrace of colorblindness, whose privileges, fragility, and reflexive expectation that people of color are responsible for educating and guiding them through the swamps of institutionalized racism, reflect the toxic realities of white supremacy and white fear whose inaction, silence, and ideologies aid and abet white supremacy. Trump happened amid this silence.
Will Trump’s election spawn a new cottage industry of liberal critique aimed simply at bolstering the Democratic Party rather than real abolitionist politics? Or will we witness a shift toward more radical critiques of white supremacy? Colleges and universities will be essential in this regard. White faculty, administration, and students, those who were shocked and horrified, who have remained silent about micro aggressions over the years, who have ignored budget cuts to black and ethnic studies at their own peril, will need to speak up and act out.
So no, I am not afraid of Trump’s America because we’ve already been living in it. This is not a time for silence, or fear. He’s just drawing out the existing racism, xenophobia, and misogyny in the population and doing us a favor by spotlighting this nastiness so it can be more effectively countered.
Having afternoon high tea with these people or watching our tone isn’t going to change things. Many academics grew up in comfortable circumstances. Those of us who didn't know from experience that bullies see weakness as an invitation to aggression. So left wing and academics of color need to grow a pair and fight back!
I understand that people’s lives are at stake and so I don’t believe in trying to placate our oppressors under the delusion of trying to educate them.
So this is a time to take risks to defend the vulnerable and to share those risks.
Those who refuse to donate are part of the problem. We need to take bold actions such as creating underground networks to hide undocumented students; infiltrating white supremacist groups on campus and off; creating rapid response units to deal with bias incidents and provide underground medical and legal assistance to those targeted. This kind of ceaseless agitation must supplement a reinvigorated effort to promote scholarship that exposes the history of white supremacy.
Beyond academe, folks need to take seriously how Trump’s cabinet appointments will further destroy health care, the environment, public education, and the economy. In addition to being a climate-change denier, he is going to ruin years of diplomatic relations with other countries and put everyone’s lives at risk. Hopefully, these ugly truths will galvanize us and bring more boots to the ground. Obama’s presidency gave white people a false sense of safety but Trump’s impending reign of terror can be the thing that gets everyone fighting to obstruct his agenda at every turn.