(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.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Students need help making sense of the world, and when they don't understand how the world is changing, some of them lash out. When we pretend that these disappointing acts are less than what they are (one reporter called the bias incident at Hampden-Sydney "racially tinged disturbances"), instead of calling them what they are – acts of racism and terrorism that psychologically damage students who are on the receiving end of such rage — then we fuel the fire. This is why students like those who gathered at Hampden-Sydney to menace and threaten students of color with bodily harm use these tactics: They know that it will cause hurt and sow seeds of suspicion and mistrust.
Even though the massive turnout of young voters should be celebrated, it does not mean that we are now off the hook for continuing to educate young people about issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and power. The national shift in racial demographics may not be reflected on many college campuses yet, meaning that members of historically disenfranchised groups may very well continue to be the "minority" on predominantly white college campuses. We cannot dismiss their needs, or the needs of white students to continue to learn how to co-exist peacefully and to resolve conflict without hurling racial slurs and bottles and threatening bodily harm.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.