Identity Crisis

Students struggle to navigate post-election reality of nationalism, hate crimes and political activism


Students, facility, and members of the community raise their fists in support of their rights on Nov. 15 outside of Pierce Hall.

Most aspects of student life at Central Michigan University are measurable.

Enrollment data guides strategic recruitment efforts. Grade point averages are used to help quantify a student’s level of academic success. Yet, there is no metric that can assess an aspect of campus life that has taken a sharp and unexpected turn this semester: A growing level of anxiety among some students about their campus and the country’s future.

To make a complaint, students must visit OCRIE on campus in the Bovee University Center. OCRIE’s offices are located in Room 306. The complaint protocol states that OCRIE officials will students navigate the complaint process once there.

Students can contact OCRIE at 989-774-3253, and reach Lasher by email at Students can contact CMUPD at 989-774-3081. 

That anxiety, and conflict, has exhibited itself in different ways — a student rally, two reported incidents of racial intimidation and numerous stories of students who say they are being ostracized for their political beliefs or lifestyles.

Last month’s presidential election was a catalyst that served as a political line in the sand further separating an already fractious nation of unsatisfied citizens divided by generations, incomes, races and genders.

As the semester winds down, students are preparing to leave a campus community working through an identity crisis. Shortly after they return to begin the Spring 2017 semester, President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

It seems anxiety may be the new normal for many students for the foreseeable future.

The Politics of Hate

Politically active CMU students say they sometimes face a stigma created by what experts are calling a dangerously polarized discussion on civil liberties in America and a public university’s responsibility in protecting the rights of all students.

CMU’s leaders are attempting to balance the free speech rights of students, faculty and staff against a growing anxiety among minority students that they will be further marginalized or threatened by their classmates. In conjunction with various university-wide administrators, the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity must enforce CMU’s nondiscrimination policy with fairness and protection of civil liberties in mind.

Temperance junior Sarah Jeffrey believes this election was a triumph for the conservative ideals of liberty and small government. Trump’s victory represents a rebuke to the liberal policies of President Barack Obama, providing a renewed hope in America’s economic future, said Jeffrey, who is an active member of CMU’s College Republicans.

At the same time, Jeffrey said she and her friends don’t agree with some of the actions inspired by Trump’s win.

“It breaks my heart, and I think we all have a responsibility to call out something that isn’t right,” Jeffrey said. “Hate won’t get us anywhere.”

Rich Drummond Jr. | Central Michigan Life

Sarah Jeffrey, Temperance junior.

Still, the divide between Americans is bigger than the results of one election. In April, a Pew Research Center poll concluded 86 percent of Democrats thought unfavorably of Republicans. At least 41 percent of those Democrats thought Republicans were a threat to the nation. Republicans had even stronger opinions about Democrats – 91 percent of respondents viewed Democrats as unfavorable, and 45 percent thought Democrats were an existential threat to America.

Bridgeport senior Portia Brown said she felt a “chill in the air” on the morning after the Nov. 8 election. For her, and other students of color, that unease was justified. Much of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign hinged on what they categorized as racist and xenophobic rhetoric aimed at Latinos, Muslim Americans and immigrants from both Latin and Arab countries.

With Trump in office, and both legislative houses of the federal government controlled by Republicans, people of color, religious minorities and members of the LGBTQ community fear a reversal of policies that guaranteed them protections against discrimination.

The anxiety and tension students are feeling is not without cause. Within days of the election, a wave of reported hate crimes and other racially-motivated incidents of harassment exploded across America.

On Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a  report detailing 867 credible incidents of harassment, bigotry and hate crimes just 10 days after the presidential election. The report only collected face-to-face incidents, and not online harassment.

Nearly 1,000 hate crimes in little more than a week.

SLPC’s data shows 40 of those moments of outward hate happened in Michigan.

Some of those incidents included:

  • An elderly man in Troy shouted racial slurs while assaulting a Chaldean woman.
  • Students at a DeWitt school laid down in front of a Latino students building a human wall chanting “Trump,” and “Build That Wall.”
  • A lesbian woman in Brighton was approached by two men who told her “Just so you know, we hate f-----g d---s and so does our President.”
  • A man in Kalamazoo told an 18-year-old, black service employee: “I don’t need to ask you for sh--. Donald Trump is president.” He then called her a “black bi---” and spat on her shoes.

The president-elect has stoked that uneasiness. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted federally-protected speech may now be open to reinterpretation during his term: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Many members of minority groups, Brown said, are also worried about Trump-inspired hate crimes from Trump supporters attached to white nationalist movements like the Alt-Right.

“The rise in hate crimes, the rise in hateful language and bad attitudes are definitely connected to Trump,” she said. “People feel victorious, and Trump has given a stamp of approval on their hate.”

Rich Drummond Jr. | Central Michigan Life

Portia Brown, Bridgeport senior

When Jeffrey walks around campus wearing her bright red “Make America Great Again” hat, or anything else showing her support for Trump, she said she has also felt judgment from her peers and professors.

“I have definitely had hateful words and glances thrown my way,” Jeffrey said. “I can say without a doubt I’ve never felt so uncomfortable voicing my opinion because of the backlash that’s come with this election cycle.”

Tension in the Air  

On a cool autumn day, members of various campus minority groups shared concern for their safety and personal liberties to a crowd of about 300 people outside Warriner Hall while offering support to one another. In that Nov. 15 sign of solidarity, these students and Central Michigan Action committee members discussed the importance of facing gender and racial intimidation and discrimination head on.

“I believe the protest was an awesome opportunity for people to feel safe and surround themselves with love and positivity after a rough week,” said Ty Bugbee, a Leslie sophomore and an organizer with CMA. “We don’t have any other actions planned, but I’d like to urge people that in order to change this atmosphere, we need to continue to show up and put in the work to elect progressive politicians who will serve everybody.”

If Trump supporters held a victory rally at CMU in the same fashion, Jeffrey surmises she and her fellow Republicans would be viewed as supporting an administration that is accused of supporting white nationalism and misogyny.

“It is hypocritical when we have a campus that says one set of ideas are OK, and another group’s ideas aren’t,” Jeffrey said. “It hurts me as a citizen of this country. It’s become very hard to be a Republican anywhere.”

While some mocked the speakers and attendees who participated in the rally, the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity has seen an increase in incidents reported since the election, confirmed director Kathy Lasher. It’s difficult to get a sense of what that means because Lasher said any information on those incidents ­— where and when they happened, a general explanation of the incident – is protected by federal law. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is  designed to shield student education records from disclosure.

Lasher would not confirm if OCRIE is investigating the two incidents reported to Central Michigan University Police Department. She would not provide any other data on how many incidents have been reported since Nov. 8.

“We can’t speak to specific cases if they’re involved in our office due to FERPA concerns,” Lasher said.

Courtesy | Southern Poverty Law Center

Many other universities nationwide make investigation materials regarding complaints of gender or racial equity or sexual misconduct public, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“It certainly is not true that student privacy covers generic information about the number of complaints,” LoMonte said. “FERPA applies to only individually identifiable education records. We know for a fact that when (for example) sexual assault is publicized, more people come forward.”

Central Michigan Life has submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request asking for any reports of OCRIE investigations of incidents involving racial or gender intimidation or discrimination. The university asked for a six-business-day extension in granting that request on Nov. 29.

FBI statistics on hate crimes show Michigan was already experiencing racial violence before the 2016 election. Michigan was in the Top 10 for total hate crimes in America, with 373 reported hate crimes in 2015.

On at least two occasions since the election, the CMUPD received complaints of racially-charged intimidation on or near campus. Two incidents were reported by students on Nov. 9. The first involved an African-American student walking on Washington Street who heard someone from inside a passing car scream at her “Trump won you f---ing n----r.”

Later in the day, two African-American students confronted a white male student in the Towers Residence Real Food on Campus Dining Hall after he used a racial slur to address a group of African-American women discussing Trump.

Last year, CMU professor Mary Senter co-published a study of minority students cataloging their experiences with racism at CMU and in Mount Pleasant. Nearly 50 percent said Mount Pleasant has a problem with racism. Another 40 percent said CMU as an institution has the same problem.

Brown said she doesn’t feel less safe at CMU since the election.

Then again, she said she rarely feels safe anywhere.

“I’ve been a black woman my entire life, so in this body, there are few places I feel safe at all,” she said. “That hasn’t changed in the community I live in now, nor the one I came from. But I did feel differently on Nov. 9. You could tell there was tension everywhere.”

Courtesy | Southern Poverty Law Center

The university's role 

OCRIE must enforce CMU’s nondiscrimination policy with fairness and protection of civil liberties in mind. University leaders are attempting to balance the free speech rights of students, faculty and staff against a growing anxiety among minority students that they will be further marginalized or threatened by their classmates.

According to CMU’s nondiscrimination policy, even if discriminatory actions committed against community members are considered not “unlawful,” CMU might take disciplinary action depending on circumstance.

Though the intensity and focus of the conversation about race and gender on campus has changed, CMU’s policy in handling civil rights complaints has not.

CMUPD Lt. Cameron Wassman said the department reported both incidents the day after the election to the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity.

“The university policy does not always require that the action is criminal,” said CMUPD Chief Bill Yeagley. “There are some things that do not rise to the level of criminal that university policy addresses.”

The university’s protocol does not regulate the content of speech — including hate speech.

As university officials grapple with this tide of rising tension, CMU professors will also struggle — just like their students — to make sense of it all. Some professors have banned any and all talk of the election in their classrooms just to avoid an outburst in hostilities. Some have canceled classes and fear for their minority students living in Trump’s America.

“One of the problems in this country is that for many white people, being called a racist is somehow worse than people actually doing racial things,” said CMU political science professor and Civil Rights scholar Joyce Baugh. “This isn’t just about racial or political polarization. I think what people have to understand is that there is real fear.

“There are people who have family and friends who (may be targeted) and are afraid of what’s going to happen in the next administration.”

Baugh also wants Trump supporters to understand the magnitude of that fear, even if they themselves aren’t racists.

“What some people who supported Trump who say they’re not racist don’t realize is: by your vote, you’re saying racism and what Trump was saying isn’t important to you,” she said. “By your vote, whether you intend to be racist or not, you did something that helped to promote somebody and a vision for the country that is very hostile toward people of color and the LGBTQ community.”


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