Several months later, I hesitate to offer yet another election postmortem for higher education. Like many of you readers, I have read countless such essays from within and beyond the academy. Some people have argued that the rise of white supremacists (they prefer to be called the “alt-right”) was only to be expected given the proliferation of identity politics in higher education. According those observers, by providing limited space and resources on campuses for the acknowledgment and celebration of various social identity groups that are underrepresented in colleges and universities, as well as marginalized across society, it was only a matter of time before white students would want to assert themselves as well.
The only trouble with that view, as was brilliantly enunciated by Cheryl Harris in 1993 in her discourse on whiteness as property, is that the very idea of whiteness and the racialization of white people over and against all others is the invention of propertied, Protestant Christian, Western European settlers in the Americas. Whiteness was the means of preserving their wealth and status within an ideologically theocratical capitalist system. This argument is disingenuous and ahistorical.
Other commentators, such as Mikki Kendall recently, have noted higher education’s failure to educate its students about race and racism. In that argument, white students are rightfully presented as being allowed to believe in their own merits while at the same time denying the meritorious potential of anyone unlike them — particularly those who are members of racially minoritized groups. Despite first-year orientation diversity sessions and general-education requirements including a plethora of options to expose students to diverse perspectives (but few which present a challenge to normative worldviews), most students leave college with the same assumptions with which they entered: that the dominance and overrepresentation of certain people in college, in leadership and among the ranks of the wealthy and envied is natural and optimal. Most students — not even just white students, necessarily — believe that advancement and opportunity is exclusively a function of merit, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as noted by legal and educational scholar Lani Guinier.
What I have not yet seen in these electoral postmortems seeking to diagnose how working-class white people in the United States seemingly voted against their own economic interests leading to the election of Donald J. Trump is: 1) an acknowledgment by higher education scholars that it was as much the vote of college-educated, middle-class white men and women that informed this presidential election’s outcomes (see here), and 2) that reality is a result of the decision of historically white colleges and universities to engage a politics of appeasement instead of a true liberal education.
Kendall’s prescient observations reflect the effects of this politics of appeasement, except those who are being appeased are not who some pundits, decrying the excessive political liberalism of the academy, have led us to believe. The greatest strength of an institution lies in its ability to persevere over time, with its most fundamental modus operandi challenged but unchanged. That has never been more true of the institution of American higher education as engendered and still practiced by historically white institutions (HWIs).
As I shared during a talk at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently, acknowledgment and celebration of diversity were not the primary goals of the student activists of the 1960s through the 1980s, who pushed for ethnic studies departments, student centers and increased recruitment and retention efforts focused on racially minoritized students, faculty members and staff members. No, it was through such avenues that those generations of activists hoped to inspire institutional transformation through the presence of a critical mass of people of color on campuses.