Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Discrimination on College Campuses

By Samara Jacobson and Nicole SochaczevskiPublished January 1, 2017

How the election of President Trump has contributed to the rise of hatred and discrimination on college campuses across the United States.

Since the 2017-2018 academic year began college campuses nationwide have faced numerous hate crimes and acts of discrimination. A swastika was carved into a campus elevator at Drake University. Racial slurs and symbols were posted around campus at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Cabrini University, Westfield State University and University of Michigan. White nationalist fliers are circulating at Stockton University, University of Louisville, and Purdue University. At Cornell, there were two racially-charged incidents in one week: a black student was assaulted on the street by several white students, and students were overheard chanting “build the wall” next to the Latino Living Center. It is increasingly difficult to ignore the hostile environments that American college campuses, often assumed to be liberal, intellectual playgrounds, have become. The question is now, what is fueling such hatred and have President Trump’s election and policies impacted this growing issue?
To clarify, individuals in America have not become more racist since Donald Trump’s election. Racism has dark, deep roots in American history and trends highlight that this rise in discriminatory acts on campus began long before President Trump began his presidential campaign. The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education reports that 16,720 complaints were filed within 2016, a 61% increase from 2015. Specifically, 198 complaints were filed regarding matters of racial harassment on post-secondary campuses. The report also finds that the number of claims about racial harassment at universities and colleges is more than double what it was when former President Obama was inaugurated. Political theorists believe that Obama’s clear stance on racism may explain this rise in complaints as a reflection in individuals’ boosted courage to stand up for themselves when they believed retribution would be taken.
Thus, the problem isn’t that people have become more racist -- the issue is that as of late, racists, white supremacists, and other hate groups have suddenly become empowered to mobilize and act.  The question should not be if people are more racist now than ever; it is more critical to investigate what changes have motivated and emboldened people to become so openly discriminatory.
While President Trump’s election itself did not spark discriminatory movements, his rhetoric, both while speaking and tweeting, as well as his oppressive policies have undoubtedly contributed to the 65 incidents where white supremacist fliers have been distributed on college campuses since January 1st.
Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly made racist comments and generalizations about certain minority groups. His Travel Ban, marked as a security measure, adversely impacted Muslims. Racially-fueled, tragic incidents in Charlottesville were met with Trump’s initial silence and eventual ignorance - neglecting to condemn white supremacy and placing the blame on “both sides.” Most recently, the repeal of DACA similar reflects his xenophobic sentiments.
Many of Trump’s policies have tangible effects on college campuses, and administrators have been forced to take strong political stances in response to his actions as president.  The repeal of DACA caused the formation of college administrator coalitions to defend their Dreamer students.  Similar protections were implemented after the Travel Ban was announced. Now, more than ever, college professors are participating in on-campus protests and politics.  At Cornell, professors protest in solidarity with fearful students after Trump’s election and plan to take a kneel in response to Trump’s statements about the disrespect of NFL players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem. On campuses across the nation, students, faculty, and administrations fight for the right to freedom of speech and expression.
As a result of the polarizing political climate, academia has sought to protect students from hatred through the creation of “safe spaces.” However, the ever-growing list of trigger warnings and “safe spaces” in academia has sparked further ideological divisions by separating students into ideologically similar domains. This stark separation has in fact led to more acts of hatred, as the  reduced collaboration and integration diminishes understanding across political ideologies, religions, races, nationalities, genders, and so on.
The combination of Trump’s outspoken and overt racism with academia’s conspicuous politics and leftism offers a more complete explanation of the rise of racism on college campuses.  Our nation’s political climate isn’t simply more liberal or more conservative -- it’s divisive and polarizing.  This new political climate creates a culture of radicalism, where people are motivated to speak on their thoughts without thinking and act regardless of the social, legal, or humanitarian implications.  This culture of radicalism, in turn, is what motivates racists and white supremacists to mobilize.  In a society where extreme liberalism and conservatism act as constant and reactionary forces, the loudness of politics encourages everyone -- including racists -- to speak their minds.