Dear CEOs, Those Campus Racism Protests May Be Coming to Your Office

March 6, 2016, 10:30 PM UTC
APTOPIX University of Missouri Turmoil
A woman passes a tent encampment set up by student protesters following an announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe is resigning Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the university in Columbia, Mo. Wolfe resigned Monday with the football team and others on campus in open revolt over his handling of racial tensions at the school. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Photograph by Jeff Roberson — AP

As the #BlackLivesMatter campus protests have swept across some 60 colleges nationwide, American students, especially the most liberal ones, are being criticized for their intolerance of free speech. Recent data show that 43% of incoming freshmen in 2015 thought it should be a college’s right to ban extreme speakers; 71% supported prohibitions against racist and sexist speech.

Pundits and comics on the left and right have derided rampant “political correctness” on campuses, and some ridiculed University of Missouri demonstrators who tried to block media coverage and Yale students who shouted down a lecturer.

Unfortunately, critics are fixating on tactics and ignoring the fundamental issue: Students are protesting institutional racism. Focusing only on the students’ unwillingness to engage in dialogue with those who offend them ignores the reason for the surge of student activism — the use of racial slurs and swastikas and other acts that create an environment of intolerance.

As an African American sociology professor at a predominantly white university, I’ve found my students quite attentive to racial issues and hear them talk frequently about how they can disrupt inequalities. But context matters. The university where I work is one where administrators, faculty and students openly and routinely discuss issues of privilege and inequality and how to address them. That, sadly, is not always the case — on campuses or in corporate settings.

A stacked system

To understand the student reactions, you must evaluate them in the context of a system stacked against people of color who are underrepresented at most levels — and certainly the most influential ones. Collective action is likely the best avenue for them to be heard and actually effect change.

In a study of the racial attitudes of white college students, sociologists Joe Feagin and Leslie Houts Picca found that behind closed doors, white students often deal in racial slurs and stereotypes — feelings that then spill over into interactions on campus and the treatment of fellow students.

This is the college environment in which many students of color are asked to live — and try to succeed, even though research also shows that many teachers have no expectation they will.

In that context, is it reasonable to expect them to engage in polite discussion with the very people who are reinforcing the bigotry? Is it surprising that they lose patience with the students, professors, and administrators whose actions seek to marginalize them?

What does this mean for corporate leaders?

The next context within which these students will confront racism is apt to be the professional workplace. Some of the critiques students raise about their environments at predominantly white colleges and universities will likely reverberate in corporate, almost always predominantly white companies. There, they may well experience much of the same racial stereotyping, isolation and lack of regard for racial issues.

At work, although the culture may be equally inhospitable, stakes are higher and receptivity to collective action is usually lower. It may be harder for employees of color to demand institutional change when they risk losing their livelihood, and when they may be even fewer in number than they were at their colleges.

Researching black professionals and emotional performance at work, I found that many African American workers were so aware of their heightened visibility that they stringently monitored their emotions and reactions. They said they were held to different standards than their white peers and often were careful never to express anger or irritability, lest they evoke ugly racial stereotypes.

But the younger generation may be less likely to follow this script — and more likely to challenge it. These future graduates have already shown a willingness to take on institutions to make them more hospitable and sensitive to racial issues. If employers welcome them, these young workers could prove to be valuable partners in the effort to establish the racial diversity and tolerance that still elude America’s largest companies.

Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She specializes in research that examines how race, gender, and class affect social processes at work.