How Campus Racism Is a Postelection Reality

Given recent cases at Ole Miss and Towson U, Obama's win still rankles some young voters.

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(The Root) -- The recent re-election of President Barack Obama has been met with a variety of reactions. Because of the large turnout of young people, women and people of color, the prevailing thought has been that America is officially moving beyond its racist past, embracing change and the need to recognize the value that these groups bring to the landscape. In some ways, the election reflects a "kumbaya" moment, in which people with shared histories and experiences came together so that their voices were heard, promoting the idea of unity, harmony and togetherness.

While this is an idealized response to the election, the reality is more complicated. The desire to focus on the positive and highlight the interconnectedness of diverse groups of people and their willingness to come together in pursuit of equality is admirable. However, any attempt to downplay the racist rhetoric and behavior that have followed the nation's first black president since day 1 in office is problematic.

Announcing that we now really must live in a postracial society because of the re-election of one black man to the nation's highest office is as irrational as ignoring the proliferation of hate speech and actions aimed squarely at President Obama. And even as many have been celebrating his historic win and assuming that youth voters don't see race, high-profile incidents on college campuses demonstrate the opposite.

You may recall the response to President Obama's re-election at Hampden-Sydney College, a small all-men's college in Virginia, where opponents shouted racial slurs, threw bottles and set off fireworks outside the Minority Student Union just hours after President Obama's re-election. Some even threatened bodily harm to members of the union. What's so surprising about this incident?

In 2009, shortly after Obama's presidential win, Hampden-Sydney welcomed its first black president, Christopher Howard, in the college's then-230-year history. Howard, who was just 40 years old, had also been a Rhodes scholar and president of his class at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He received his Ph.D. from Oxford, is a Harvard MBA and was a vice president at General Electric.

How sad is it that a school that saw fit to finally hire a black man as president has students who are so small-minded that they cannot imagine a black man as president of the United States? Hampden-Sydney students have the opportunity to experience on a micro level what the rest of us are experiencing on a macro level, and this is what some choose to do with it?

A similar incident was reported at Ole Miss, where racial epithets were shouted after the announcement that President Obama had been re-elected. The Daily Mississippian student newspaper reported that hundreds of students "exchanged racial epithets and violent, politicized chants" as the nation learned that President Obama had beaten former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Again, a school that was recently in the news for having elected its first black homecoming queen, Courtney Pearson, was rebelling against the re-election of America's black commander in chief. They were unable to see how President Obama's historic election in the first place might have influenced the students' desire to crown Pearson as homecoming queen, which is major in Southern culture.

These students are in the midst of living this multicultural experience and somehow still cannot fathom it. One only has to look at the crusade of Matthew Heimbach, who is attempting to start a White Student Union at predominantly white Towson University in Maryland. Heimbach's unwillingness to acknowledge the change that is happening in front of him, even among his white peers -- many of whom desire to connect with students of color and are not threatened by the fact that students of color have organizations that focus on their specific needs that often go overlooked in majority environments -- is telling. Heimbach wants instead to reinforce his ideas of racial privilege at Towson, a campus that is clearly invested in inclusion and diversity.

As a college professor, I don't find these cases alarming because anyone who works on a college campus of any size or composition knows that bias incidents like the ones at Hampden-Sydney and Ole Miss happen. Full disclosure: My school, Goucher College, experienced bias incidents last year against blacks and gays and against Jewish students in years prior.