Confused Thinking about White Student Unions and Racism

The controversy over establishing a White Student Union (WSU) at Towson University in Baltimore provides an excellent opportunity to explore how whites think about issues like racism, inequality, discrimination and education.  While it may be the case that Matthew Heimbach, the white student promoting the WSU, is a genuine white supremacist, some of his arguments resonate with more mainstream whites: “If they have a Black Student Union, why shouldn’t we have a White Student Union?  Isn’t this just a matter of fairness?”

Even before the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, public opinion polls showed that a large proportion of whites believed that racism was a thing of the past.  In employment and education, the argument goes, the playing field is fairly level today.  Racial discrimination is only a minor problem and hard work generally leads to success.

Of course, most of us can clearly see that there are large inequalities between the incomes and educational attainments of whites and Asians, on the one hand, and Blacks and Hispanics on the other.  The explanation inequality, according to this argument, relies on culture rather than discrimination: Blacks and Hispanics don’t try hard enough, they don’t value education, they don’t have strong families, etc.  Sociologists refer to this as blaming the victim.

If you accept this culture argument, the idea that whites are privileged and that special programs are needed to help Blacks and Hispanics seems ludicrous.   Not only are these programs seen as unnecessary and wasteful, many of them are viewed as hurting whites who have struggled hard to get where they are.  Some even use the term reverse discrimination.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not based on reality.  Racism and racial inequality are, unfortunately, still alive and well, even though they are different than in the past.

o In 2009, for example, the FBI reported almost 4000 race-based hate crimes, with Blacks being victimized at four times the rate of whites.  Most observers see this as the tip of the ice berg.

o In 2011, 35,000 race-based employment discrimination complaints were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the vast majority by Blacks and Hispanics.

o  Blacks and Hispanics make up 61 percent of the prison population even though they are only about one-third of the American population.

o Towson University is still a predominantly white campus, with almost 70% of the student body being white and only 13.5% black.  Compare this to the 30% of the state population that is black.  Even UMBC, a more selective institution on the other side of Baltimore County, clocks in at 15% black and slightly less than half white.

Towson, like most other colleges,  reflects mainstream American culture, which is also white.  Towson University IS the white student union, although it is making progress with cultural diversity.

Minority student unions began emerging across the country in the late 1960s to develop a sense of cultural solidarity and to fight for minority rights and more diversity on campus.  While they have achieved some success, the struggle isn’t over.  White student unions are a great step backward.

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