The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions

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An Uncomfortable Truth: A Tyranny of the Majority on Campuses

(Picture: University of Missouri students)

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Written by Antioch College Professor, Kevin McGruder

The abrupt resignation of Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, in the face of mounting criticisms from black students, and the ongoing demonstrations by black students at Yale University have placed the challenges faced by black students on predominantly white campuses in the public eye in a way not seen in decades.  The muted responses of administrators to racial incidents on these campuses has been as troubling as the incidents in which black students were targeted with racial epithets or ridiculed in other ways by fellow students. 

Yale University students

Students come and go on campuses, but administrators and faculty are stewards of campus culture. An important part of their charge, whether they realize it or not, is ensuring that a healthy learning environment exists. On residential campuses this is particularly important because where the students learn is also where they live. For the majority of the calendar year, the campus is home.  Given these clear responsibilities, what explanation could there be for the failure of the responsible parties to respond to the concerns of black students?  Some have suggested that honoring the offending students’ rights to free speech prevents intervention. Others have implied that intervening in such incidents would be coddling black students who should learn to make their way on campus and eventually in the world on their own. These arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. Imagine if the tables were turned and, on a predominantly white college campus, black students were hurling epithets at white students, or ridiculing white students in other ways. We can be sure that the full force of the institution would be marshaled to end this behavior, inspired by an instinctive desire to protect students who are in the majority.  A scenario precipitating such action is unlikely because students who are in the racial majority on a campus wield cultural power that is rooted in the assumption that they are true representatives of the student body. Most observers assume that these students are the stewards of campus culture and for their time on campus the majority students do dominate and define campus culture.  When students from the white racial majority on a campus target black students who are racial minorities on that campus, the white students are wielding their power, instinctively engaging in an unfair fight. Their actions illustrate a version of a tyranny of the majority. Expecting individual black students to respond to attacks from white students in a way that can overcome this power imbalance is delusional. Black students understand this, which is why at the University of Missouri, Yale and other campuses they have organized and created coalitions with other sympathetic student allies to amplify their voices. Unfortunately even these efforts have not led to resolutions of the underlying problems. The resignations of University of Missouri president and chancellor are only the beginning of a story that is still unfolding. Yale administrators have not made clear how they plan to respond to student grievances.  

Why such tepid campus responses to incidents that exemplify a tyranny of the majority? Many administrators and faculty do not seem to view the actions of white students from this perspective.  They seem to see each incident as an individual act of wrongdoing rather than acts born of the campus culture, which is derived from American culture.  In the several decades that most colleges have to varying degrees welcomed black students to their campuses, most campuses have done so with the message “join us, learn our ways, adapt and excel.”  Most black students are excited about going to college, expecting to learn and to change as a result of their experiences. But many colleges do not realize that in recruiting students who are not white to their campuses, if they expect these students to feel at home, the campuses also have to be prepared to change in ways that incorporate the perspectives of these non-white students. If they fail to take action many of these black students will endure unhealthy college experiences and some will leave. 

University of Missouri students

If colleges are sincerely committed to recruiting black students, and ensuring that they thrive during their college careers, some uncomfortable truths that are barriers to changing campus culture to accommodate non-white students, must be faced.  The enduring power of white supremacy has to be confronted, even though the phrase itself makes many people uncomfortable.  Using a more palatable term disguises the perniciousness of this enduring belief system.  The failure to confront the truth, that white supremacy is alive and well in U.S. culture, and on college campuses, is the only way we can move beyond being mystified by the continuing incidents of racially tinged attacks on campuses. White supremacy is the concept that white people are inherently superior in all ways to other people. The concept dates to the growth of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and was essential to justifying the purchase and sale of millions of people of African descent, from the 1500s through the 1800s, to labor on plantations in the Americas. While many may assume that white supremacy is a relic of the era of slavery, it is important to understand the ways that in the decades after emancipation, white supremacy adapted and endured. In the U.S. the end of slavery in 1865 was followed by decades of segregation laws and other practices limiting the opportunities of black people that are evidence of the desire to maintain the racial hierarchy of whites at the top and blacks at the bottom.  When the successes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s made such practices illegal, white supremacist tactics became more informal and subtle, but they continue to this day.  People in the U.S., white and black, living in a culture influenced by these centuries of overt and covert white supremacy in action cannot avoid being influenced by these beliefs.

Many white Americans believe in the ideal of racial equality and are not promoters of white supremacy individually.  But white supremacy does not require individual actors to endure, it continues because it has been institutionalized in unseen ways, incorporated into bank lending practices, housing settlement patterns, our unequal education system, employment practices, and as has been made clear over the last year, in the criminal justice system.  White Americans, committed to racial equality, still benefit from white supremacy whether they want to or not, and black Americans, whether they realize it or not, are harmed by white supremacy. 

Most of the people enacting white supremacist practices aren’t bad people. While they probably could not explain it, the group of white University of Missouri students who yelled the N-word at their student body president Payton Head, a black man, were most likely motivated by an assumption that a black person should not be in that position. Their verbal attack was an attempt to diminish his achievement. Regardless of his status on campus, they wanted to make clear to him that they still viewed him as below them.  Most white supremacists sincerely believe they are doing what is right. In reality their actions reinforce their beliefs that white people should rightfully be at the top and in power in any given situation. This is the context in which colleges exist today, and this is the legacy that has influenced the interactions between white and black students who are trying to live and learn together on their campuses. 

College campuses, with departments of history, psychology, political science, sociology, and philosophy, would seem to be uniquely positioned to engage in discussions that get to the historical root of the contemporary problems facing their campuses.  There are undoubtedly students, administrators, and faculty already engaged in these discussions on these campuses. The fact that the decision makers on the campuses are stumbling in developing an analysis that could lead to a meaningful response suggests an unwillingness to hear and to face the uncomfortable truth behind the tyranny of the majority on their campuses. 

Kevin McGruder, Ph.D.,  is Assistant Professor of History at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio