Racial slurs at college protests prompt a deeper look

USA TODAY, November 12, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

It was almost midnight when Ole Miss police officers came across a large crowd of students “shouting racial slurs and taunting other students with chants about the recent presidential election.”

Just minutes after President Obama was re-elected Tuesday, a crowd of 550 “agitated and angry” students and spectators gathered to not only attack his policies but shout about race, according to a University of Mississippi police report. More than 700 miles away in Virginia at Hampden-Sydney College, 40 students set off fireworks and broke bottles near the Minority Student Union house and yelled racial insults and threats at its residents.

How these students went from venting political frustrations to spewing racial epithets lies at the heart of American culture and ongoing issues of race despite having re-elected the nation’s first black president, school administrators and experts say. The incidents at both schools illustrate that though racial barriers at the White House may have been broken, discrimination that affects people’s daily lives remains.

“The anger wasn’t only about President Obama and his re-election,” said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, adolescence and academic and social development. “It was overall frustration at the emerging power of diverse people in this country.”

America’s electorate is getting more diverse. White men made up 34% of voters this year, down from 46% in 1972. Meanwhile, non-whites made up 28% of voters this year, up from 20% in 2000. Hispanics are a big part of that change.

The changing demographics of voters deeply impacted this year’s election. Obama captured 80% of nonwhites in 2012, just as he did in 2008. Republican Mitt Romney was not able to win even though he dominated among white men.

Those facts scare many white male students and may have led the students at these colleges to react with racial slurs, Bentley-Edwards said. “These young people felt their future was being taken away from them and that someone had to stand up and say something.”

Ole Miss’ protest unfolded sometime around 11:55 p.m. Tuesday when 30 to 40 students began shouting political slogans, taunting other students and blocking traffic. The crowd quickly grew to more than 550 participants and onlookers, not including those in cars, police said. At one point, officers say, students surrounded a pickup truck in the student union parking lot and yelled curse words and political chants at those inside.

Officers, “concerned for their safety,” ordered students out of the street but “nothing seemed to work,” according to the police report. It took police an hour and 19 minutes and threats of jail to get students to disperse and go back to their residence halls. Two people were arrested but no one was injured.

Shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday, the 15 students who live at Hampden-Sydney College’s Minority Student Union house experienced their own ordeal. There, about 40 students came to the house, yelled racially offensive comments and threatened residents with “physical harm,” the university said. After about 45 minutes, officials say other students broke up the protest.

Both Bentley-Edwards and Howard Stevenson, a professor of applied psychology and education at the University of Pennsylvania, say the incidents illustrate that America has a long way to go in combating discrimination and racism.

“Folks who claim we’re in a post-racial America are very shallow in their understanding of how racial discrimination happens in a relational world,” Stevenson said. “Obama becoming the first black president is progress to some people, but to some people it’s a threat.”

Both blacks who think Obama being president means racism will evaporate and whites who believe his position will hurt their ability to succeed are wrong, Stevenson said. Instead, day-to-day interactions and thoughts about race on a everyday basis must change for real progress to happen.

School officials say the incidents are being investigated and that students may face university or legal discipline. They also stressed that leaders condemned the acts.

The University of Mississippi has a “difficult cultural history with race relations,” said Chancellor Dan Jones in an interview. “We have ongoing efforts to create an atmosphere that tries to prevent this kind of behavior.”

A symbolic hanging, cross burnings and riots greeted Ole Miss’ first black student, James Meredith, who was admitted in 1962. In 1997, the school ended the waving of Confederate flags at sporting events. Ole Miss dumped its mascot, Colonel Reb — a caricature of a white plantation owner — in 2003 to distance the school from Old South stereotypes.

This year, the school elected its first black female student body president and had its first black homecoming queen. The day after the election protest, Ole Miss held a candlelight vigil to denounce the acts.

“Race is a complicated issue in our country, our state and our university,” Jones said. “Progress is never steady. There are always stops and starts.”

While no other special measures are planned in response to last week’s incidents, Ole Miss will continue to hold dialogs about race and invite national speakers to campus, he said.

Hampden-Sydney President Christopher Howard echoed those sentiments and told USA TODAY he has similar plans to have the all-male school’s 1,082 students as well as faculty, staff and outside experts hold conversations about race. The day after the incident, about 300 people attended a town hall meeting to talk about what happened.

“We don’t condone this,” Howard said. “We are going to own our mistakes and set goals to be respectful and inclusive.”

University spokesman, Thomas Shomo, added that the protests reflect the bitterness of the presidential campaigns and the harshness of both Democrats’ and Republicans’ rhetoric.

“In multiple directions, there have been incidents surrounding the campaigns that have had racial implications,” said William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor who wrote an article about the protest at Ole Miss on his blog, College Insurrection. “It’s not just white students yelling things about blacks, there was a lot of talk about whether the Republicans are too white. I think it’s a charged situation and I think people need to step back from focusing so much on race and focus on issues.”

But for Stevenson at Penn, there’s no separating racial politics from general politics. Conversations about voter-identification laws, taxation by class, food stamps and health care were often racialized during this election and previous ones, he said.

“These events at these schools are just a continuation of racial rejection that has gone on even before Obama became president,” he said.