Listen

It’s a lesson from Trump voters and people of color to higher education, writes Shaun R. Harper.

November 14, 2016
 

Like many people around the world, I remain stunned by Donald Trump’s election. I am not a political scientist and therefore cannot fully explain how this happened. Undeniably, sexism played a part in our failure to elect to the presidency an extraordinarily experienced woman with credentials as impressive as Hillary Clinton’s. During CNN’s televised election night coverage, commentator Van Jones argued that Trump’s election is a form of “whitelash” -- the response from frustrated white Americans to a two-term black president and our nation’s changing racial demographics. Both are among the wide array of plausible explanations.

I think another fundamental issue has been at play. Again, I am not a political science professor, but I am a scholar who listens to people whose voices are often ignored in higher education. And while few participants in my research probably voted for Trump, they share with his voters at least one common experience: being ignored.

In her CNN interview the morning after the election, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said their victory was partly attributable to the failed attempt by Clinton campaign leaders to listen to a large segment of the American electorate. “They were trying to tell people, ‘This is what is important to you -- temperament or this comment that was made many years ago or that comment yesterday,’” Conway maintained. To my own surprise, I agree with her assessment.

I published a piece in The Washington Post last month in which I deemed Trump’s so-called locker room talk sexist and disgustingly unacceptable. I was definitely telling people they should care about sexism and sexual assault. Perhaps some Trump supporters were troubled by his statements on the Access Hollywood video but not enough to vote against him. They cared more about other things. Did Secretary Clinton and the rest of us listen closely enough to sufficiently understand the matters about which Trump supporters were most concerned?

President-elect Trump repeatedly bragged about the enormous size of crowds at his rallies. Too little effort was invested in understanding why so many people -- most of them white, working-class and lower-income Americans -- were so enthusiastic about his candidacy. Many people were there because they held sexist, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic views that aligned with his. But others had needs and concerns to which Trump appeared to be listening. Many of us, in contrast, were focusing more on Trump’s controversial words than we were on the experiences and concerns of people who ultimately voted him president.

Bad things happen when people’s concerns are largely ignored and when listening occurs only in polarized, racially homogeneous spaces. That happened in our most recent presidential election. It also happens on college and university campuses.

Around this time last year, the University of Missouri System president and the chancellor of its flagship campus resigned because they did what students of color considered an inexcusably poor job of listening and responding to matters that most concerned them. I imagine those two executives were about as stunned by the outcome of their inaction as many of us were by Trump’s election. But because the president and chancellor weren’t listening, students of color lost faith in the ability of those leaders to effectively address their encounters with racism and marginalization. Similarly, victims of sexual assault keep telling us that people on their campuses are not listening.

In our campus climate studies, researchers at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education listen to students, faculty members and staff members at predominantly white institutions across the country. While we always include white people in our climate research, most participants are people of color. As I note in “Paying to Ignore Racism,” people of color often tell us that leaders on their campuses ignore their voices and experiential realities. In most instances, it isn’t until some type of crisis erupts (for example, national news coverage of students protesting a racist incident that occurred on the campus) that the president and other administrators seemingly get serious about understanding marginalized people’s experiences.

While I would not categorically lump together Trump voters with people of color who are demanding racial justice and inclusion in higher education, both groups want to be heard and their realities to be understood. When they are not, bad things happen. Eventually, fed-up people shock those who fail to listen and fix, or at least demonstrably aim to improve, their situations.

Posters at political campaign rallies read, “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.” His supporters were not silent. Thousands, perhaps millions of them showed up at his events. But the Clinton campaign did not pay close enough attention to what they were saying are the most important issues for them and their families. Confession: I engaged only two Trump supporters in conversations -- one of those instances was in a televised CNN interview, the other was on an airplane. I did not seek them out. Like me, I bet Secretary Clinton and her team wishes they had done more to find these fellow Americans, learn more about their lives and demonstrate serious care for their hardships. They were hiding in plain sight at his rallies; we could have found them. We should have listened.

It is not too late for us to listen to what women, people of color, immigrants, undocumented students, LGBT persons and people with disabilities tell us about their experiences, needs and concerns. It also is not too late for faculty members and administrators to create spaces for people from different racial groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as those with different political perspectives, to listen to and learn from each other. Inevitably, bad things will continue to happen at colleges and universities -- and subsequently in our larger society -- if we fail to listen and then act with higher degrees of intentionality.

One final quote about the Trump victory from Conway’s postelection CNN interview: “I think the big lesson of yesterday is stop listening so much to each other and start listening to the people.” That was her advice to the news media and politicians. When it comes to matters of equity, inclusion and safety on campuses, I think that is the big lesson for higher education leaders, as well.

Bio

Shaun R. Harper is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. He is author of the forthcoming book Race Matters in College (Johns Hopkins University Press) and president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

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