SPEAK UP: Spike in Racist, Bullying Behavior on Campuses Creates Opportunity for Discussion and Understanding

By  - 

Certain rhetoric and behavior by President Donald Trump has been cited as promoting racism, violence, sexism, and bullying. A central concern regarding the president’s public messaging is that it normalizes discriminatory beliefs and, at times, abusive or violent behaviors.

In addition to condoning — and thus effectively encouraging — violent behavior by his supporters at several of his campaign rallies, Trump has made derogatory and degrading comments about Mexicans, women, and Muslims. And this past summer, he was reluctant to condemn the racist and violent behavior at the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. To make matters worse, Trump remains unapologetic and largely unchecked by the Republican Party.

It has been argued that his unwillingness to take a definitive stand against such behavior, and the absence of accountability, has created a more public space for bigotry. Additionally, some believe Trump’s divisive and vitriolic messaging has contributed to increased hate-based speech and aggressive actions across the country — what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls the “Trump Effect.”

[Above: SIUE students and faculty participate in a campus-wide dialogue.]

On college campuses in particular, there has been an increase in racism and bullying among students. Examples from nearly 30 institutions this year include students wearing blackface, using racial slurs, and writing racist and anti-Semitic graffiti on campuses. Lecia Brooks, outreach director for SPLC, believes the increase in this behavior can be traced directly to Trump’s own hateful messaging.

Lecia Brooks
Lecia Brooks

“The emboldenment of people with biased and bigoted thoughts … began during the 2016 presidential campaign,” says Brooks. “Then candidate Trump’s nativist and dehumanizing rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims in particular played into existing biases. The fact that [he] won after repeated attacks on individuals and their identities was read as a blow to so-called ‘political correctness.’ People were now free to be as bold in their prejudice as he was.”

“The unprecedented uptick in bias-related incidents in the immediate aftermath of the election is a reflection of what was said and done during the campaign,” she adds.

In this new political and social climate, colleges and universities are struggling more than ever to ensure safe, inclusive, and respectful environments for all. So how are they addressing instances of racism and bullying on their campuses, at a time when hateful rhetoric is coming from our country’s highest office and the inclusion of marginalized groups doesn’t appear to be a priority of our nation’s leader?

Awareness and Responsiveness
This year, racist messaging was found on several campuses in Massachusetts. Graffiti that used the N-word and said “Whites only USA” was found at Salem State University; at Boston College, students walked out of classes to protest events that included the defamation of Black Lives Matter posters and the posting of racist images on Snapchat; and an African American student at Westfield State University found a sexist, vulgar, and racist message posted on her dorm room door.

Ramon S. Torrecilha
Ramon S. Torrecilha

President of Westfield State Ramon S. Torrecilha, PhD, took several steps to address the incident, which included launching an investigation, issuing multiple statements denouncing the event, and reiterating that acts of this nature “would not be tolerated and that those found responsible would be held accountable.”

Torrecilha says he also contacted the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League for guidance and support, and the university implemented a cross-divisional Bias Incident Response Team to assist students who have experienced such acts. Additionally, in an effort to be more proactive, beginning last semester, the Office of Academic Affairs launched a “Higher Ed/Higher Ground” lecture series, which enlists both university faculty and outside speakers to help promote healthy discourse on topics related to bias that are sometimes difficult to discuss candidly.

Although there is some agreement in academia that the election of Trump and his divisive rhetoric have contributed to the rise in racist and bullying events, Torrecilha is reluctant to make the correlation between this and the incident that occurred at Westfield State. “Any connection to the national election is unknown as we do not yet know who is behind these acts and their motivation,” he says.

Jessica Harris
Jessica Harris

Yet others, like Jessica Harris, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Historical Studies and director of black studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), maintain that there is a definitive connection.

She believes Trump’s language and behavior have played a role in the increase of such incidents on SIUE’s campus. “The nature of our national political climate has an impact on our college campuses,” Harris explains. “During his campaign and since then, Trump has been slow to condemn the actions of white supremacists.”

When the president used the phrase “fine people on both sides” in reference to the Charlottesville white nationalist rally, many may have viewed it “as a signal of support for white supremacists and related biased activities and hate crimes,” she adds.

While Harris says recent events at SIUE have created a “tense” environment on the campus, they have also “laid bare and brought to the surface racial issues that have adversely impacted [the] campus for a long time.” In addition to launching an investigation and creating a rapid-response team to address such situations, SIUE administrators began hosting bi-weekly campus-wide dialogues, which are facilitated by the provost or a faculty volunteer.

Students on SIUE’s Campus

“The purpose of these dialogues has been to give members of our community a safe space to discuss the [effect] of these and other racial incidents and think through how we can [collectively] make our community safer and more inclusive,” Harris says. Topics of discussion have included the importance of clear communication from senior leaders when racial incidents occur, among others. The sessions, Harris says, have drawn as many as 75 attendees, including senior leadership, faculty, staff, and students.

In addition, these discussions have prompted senior leaders to create action items around some of the recommendations — as was the case with the rapid response team — and students have requested programming that includes a diversity requirement.

Creating more inclusive environments — both in higher education and the workplace — has been a growing concern in the U.S. over the last several years, but particularly since Trump has taken office. For college campuses grappling with this task, Harris believes awareness is key.

“Institutional awareness is when leaders have a clear understanding of where their organization is positioned relative to the external environment — recognizing that, in this case, universities don’t function and operate apart from broader societal trends and shifts,” explains Harris. “As painful as it is and as uncomfortable as it may be to face these problems, institutional awareness is paramount if systemic and sustainable change is to occur.”●

Wendy Todd is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is a 2014-2017 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.