Trump. It’s a name that’s evolved, in only the last few months, from referring only to a billionaire real estate magnate and reality TV star to the name of the leading Republican presidential candidate. And not just any candidate – a Republican front-runner who has no qualms about inviting the ire of women, black people, immigrants and Muslims.
Now, at several high schools around the US it appears that shouting “Trump” has evolved into a kind of taunt, used by largely white students at minority opponents during, say, basketball games.
Students at one school in Indiana held posters of the leading Republican presidential candidate and chanted, “Build a wall,” to which the heavily Hispanic rival school responded by chanting, “You’re a racist!” Several days earlier, in Iowa, a high school basketball team from a school that is half Hispanic faced chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
Two recent incidents involving college students show that “Trump” as a taunt may not be a high school phenomenon.
Two Northwestern University students have been charged with vandalising a chapel on campus with spray paint, writing a swastika, slurs against black and gay people – and the word “Trump”. Days later, two students at Wichita State University – one Muslim and one Hispanic – were attacked at a gas station by a man who shouted, “Trump, Trump, Trump, we will make America great again. You losers will be thrown out of the wall.”
The incidents were reported at a time when many Trump rallies have featured scuffles and worse – with many minority students and others saying that they have been shouted at or pushed or kicked out of events.
Organisers cancelled a large Trump rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago earlier this month, citing threats of violence. Supporters and protesters still engaged in numerous scuffles in the run-up to the cancellation.
“To just think about the word ‘Trump’ as simply showing or expressing support of Trump is not exactly the entire story here,” said Eddie Comeaux, associate professor of higher education at the University of California, Riverside. “It’s borderline silly to think there’s not more meaning attached to” chanting the name of a candidate that “plays on the fears of some of the most vulnerable, the most uninformed and misguided”.
Donald Trump uses divisive rhetoric to stoke racism and Islamophobia, Comeaux said, pointing specifically to some of Trump’s more well-known statements, such as his call to bar Muslims from entering the country and his push to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, who, Trump said, “are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc”.
Whether you’re likely to hear similar chants, and perhaps see a violent, Wichita-esque incident as well, on your own campus depends entirely on what kind of campus it is, Comeaux said.
At a “more inclusive” college that “understands what it means to have a diverse campus”, you are less likely to see it. But “there are campuses that are more reactionary”, he said. On campuses like that, “there won’t be safe spaces where students feel they are being supported, or that they are being heard”.
Of course Northwestern is not known as a “reactionary” campus, and students and administrators were stunned that two freshmen would vandalise a chapel, invoking Trump's name and symbols of hate.
Northwestern's president, Morton Schapiro, released a statement almost immediately to express “our shock and dismay at the abhorrent act of vandalism”, which he called a “disgusting act of hatred [that] violates the deepest values and core commitments of our university and is an affront to us all”.
Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage, said it’s safe to say taunts like this, using Trump’s name, will spread on college campuses.
“There have been many racist incidents similar to this on campus over the last three decades, including many the last few years,” he wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
“Historically, white fraternity members are often the culprits in written and oral racist taunts and other racist incidents. But they are by no means the majority of white perpetrators,” he said.
In this case, “they are chanting like they do a football games for their 'team,' and their strong 'leader' – in this case Trump – has become their team leader and ‘coach,’ for 'team angry white' or 'team angry white male',” said Feagin.
“His overt attacks on Mexican immigrants, Muslims, 'thugs,' etc., are simply saying and doing what they often do and say, especially backstage with their white friends and relatives. He has made it more OK to do that racist chanting and action in public, and they cheer his team for that, by name…Pretty much like they cheer for sports or celebrity TV show folks.”
Whatever is behind the chant, students certainly aren’t immune, said Archie Ervin, the new president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and vice-president for institute diversity at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“I really think that our students are not immune from the messaging that is writ large in our social setting, particularly around such high-profile events like the president election,” he said. “I’m not surprised, but I don’t think that it’s a very positive reflection on our college campuses.”
Students take their cues for how to act from what they see happening out in the world, and “as [these incidents are] increasingly part of the national scene, I suspect we’ll see more of this”, Ervin said. “College campuses are incubators of citizens of tomorrow, and they’ll take part in what they think is the political process.”
Comeaux said that colleges may be able to promote a healthier political atmosphere by listening carefully to students and being mindful of rhetoric used on campus. Feagin, however, said that he believes the problem is likely to hang around in one form or another so long as campus administrations remain dominantly white. “Every campus that is historically white will see more of this off and on for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Ervin, too, said that he thinks many colleges will opt to do little differently in the face of troubling political rhetoric, even when it inevitably bleeds on to campus. Most, he said, will err on the side of protecting the free speech of their students wherever possible and instead rely on existing codes of conduct for when or if that speech turns into prohibited (violent, for example) action.
“Most colleges are not going to be in the position of opposing free speech,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen, but they’ll also be ready for actions that in fact result in illegal behaviours.”
This is a version of an article that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed