In January, students at Clemson University in South Carolina and a number of other institutions of higher learning opted to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day with what were called “ghetto-fabulous” parties at which white students dressed in blackface, drank 40s, wore fake teeth grills, flashed gang signs and, in some cases, padded their posteriors to conform to their stereotypes of the Black female body. A month later, white students at Santa Clara University in California threw a “Latino-themed” party, where young women feigned pregnancy, the young men played at being cholo and everyone reveled in the symbols and spectacle they associate with Mexican Americans.
Although not a new phenomenon, it seems that over the last year “ghetto,” “gangsta,” “south of the border” and “taco and tequila” parties have become college chic and cool. Parties at more than a dozen colleges and universities received national coverage in the past year, with countless others going unnoticed save for the pictures posted to sundry websites. It is tempting to interpret such events as clichéd racist expressions. They are, after all, contemporary minstrel theaters that allow middle- and upper-class white Americans to cross moral and social boundaries by racial crossdressing. But such easy explanations keep us from fully appreciating the circumstances on today’s college campus that make minstrel parties pleasing and powerful for so many.
In many respects, ghetto-fabulous parties are the culmination of conservative politics on college campuses. They reflect the ongoing insecurities of whiteness in the wake of the civil rights movement and the supposed prominence of multiculturalism and political correctness. Indeed, ghetto-fab parties are part of a broader reactionary movement that believes whiteness and the ivory tower are being imperiled by political correctness, radical professors and “minority rights.” Pushing against these perceived evils, conservative students have organized political theatrics on campuses, holding “affirmative action” bake sales and “white-only” scholarships. They have in essence created a culture today in which those with power think of themselves as victims and those without become targets for violence.
As key battlegrounds in the culture wars, colleges and universities have long been under fire for their purported liberal bias. However, with the corporate take-over of America’s colleges and universities, and since 9/11, academics and public intellectuals have become increasingly suspect. They have become visible targets for neoconservative racial projects.
“Over the past few years, we have seen a rise in ghetto parties on college campuses around the country. While these postmodern minstrel shows are not themselves new-fraternities, sororities and other social groups have conducted such parties for more than a century—the performance of these racist rituals in full public view indexes a sharp ideological shift on many of America’s campuses,” notes Marc Lamont Hill, an assistant professor of Urban Education at Temple University. “As universities become increasingly corporatized and militarized spaces, attacks on tenure, free speech, ethnic studies and student and faculty diversity are increasingly common features of the higher educational landscape. It is within this post-culture war context that ghetto parties and other spectacles—such as ‘whites-only bake sales’ and anti-affirmative action rallies—can be positioned within the public sphere with no substantive retribution.”
The corporatization of America’s universities is not simply resulting in corporate takeovers of book stores and food services, or even the corporate marking of buildings, departments and programs across the country; it isn’t just about the emphasis on business plans and profits, or corporate partnerships, but about changing the overall mindset of today’s university. In 1998, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education called for the establishment of “a program productivity review” that required campuses to cut academic programs that did not produce the requisite number of graduates. While also calling for a reduction in “public service projects,” the decision made clear that the logic of markets and profitability rather than educational value govern today’s university. At the University of Akron in Ohio, its president invited faculty members to a lecture by a representative of the Disney Institute entitled “Delivering the Customer (Student) Experience: Keeping the Promise.”
With universities turning curriculum and policy over to corporate interests and demands, and a larger proportion of students viewing college as an inconvenient step in their journey to “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” the threats are immense to multicultural education, social justice, democratic pedagogy and those who advocate and benefit from these education perspectives. In 2001, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA conducted a survey that found 75 percent of students described “being very well-off financially” as a “very important” life goal, whereas “influencing the political structure” and “writing original works” rated very low on the scale, with only 16 percent and 13 percent of students respectively describing these as very important life goals. This comes as no surprise, given the widespread celebration of excessive materialism and wealth that is most evident in popular television shows like Cribs, The Real Housewives of Orange County and MTV’s My Super Sweet 16.
However, popular culture isn’t the only one in the room teaching students that money begets success, respect and happiness. UCLA historian Russell Jacoby, in his polemic Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America, notes that students applying for credit cards who write down “humanities” as their area of interest are often turned down. When these same students reapply listing “finance,” the credit card is sent almost immediately. Given these cultural realities and the fact that American college students graduate with an average credit card debt of $2,478 dollars and $19,300 owed in student loans, it is no wonder that students and universities have little time and interest in (are in fact resistant to) ethnic and women’s studies. Such activities not only retain little value in a world of educational commodities, but are also seen as impediments to fulfilling those very important goals to “get rich” or at least “die trying.” That is why so many ethnic studies courses at universities are increasingly being displaced by diversity training programs, where rather than learning about persistent inequalities, students are taught about cultural competency and tolerance as skills that will serve them in the business world.
In response to discrimination lawsuits faced by numerous American companies, corporations have turned to multicultural education as its remedy, demanding that schools graduate workers who aren’t racist, sexist and homophobic on the job, given the potential threats to profit. But what they are getting instead are students known for ghetto parties and anti-immigrant games who are unable to make sense of the implication of such racial and racist play. Emmett Price, professor of music and African-American Studies at Northeastern, wrote in a Boston Globe article on the “ghetto culture machine” that students on his campus reacted to ghetto parties by saying, “So what?” They considered ghetto parties no more harmful than toga parties. Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of African American Studies at Duke University, wonders about the racial specificity and consciousness surrounding these parties. “I think a fair amount of these kids are conscious that the parties they are having are offensive and are quite willing to play stupid or play the ‘double-standard’ card (like Imus) when pressed. I think this is especially the case with the blackface and ‘green-card’ parties. And I think they are wholly related to some of the backlash around so-called set-aside programs and affirmative action.”
Recent works by David Horowitz and Dinesh D’Souza, rightwing intellectuals with a growing influence on college campuses, have linked radical Islam and the American left. D’Souza has actually asserted that “the cultural left” bears responsibility for Sept. 11. Irresponsible and ungrounded at best, the works of both Horowitz and D’Souza exemplify a cultural shift that has enabled facile and false associations between dissent and destruction, as well as progressivism and terrorism. These shifts lay a foundation for silencing dissident perspectives. Horowitz and D’Souza, like Roger Kimball and many other conservative social critics, have successfully changed public conversations about higher education to emphasize the ways in which university culture “discriminates” against whites, males, Christians, “patriotic” Americans and the greatness of Western civilization. Roger Kimball, in his 1998 book Tenured Radicals, describes contemporary universities in the following way: “Yesterday’s student radical is today’s tenured professor or academic dean.” Kimball, Horowitz and company imagine universities as not only bastions of liberal thought and praxis, but also as places that are inhospitable to conservative ideology, American values and white, male, heterosexual bodies.
Similarly, Heather Macdonald, in The Weekly Standard, questions how under the leadership of these “tenured radicals” American universities have developed a compulsive obsession with race and gender, even as “the country is on the brink of war” and “faces the likelihood of another terrorist attack.” Macdonald goes on to lament the diversity programs at Dartmouth College, a place where “every ethnic group but Caucasians has its own academic department” and where Black students are recruited with “all-expenses-paid visits to campus, complete with tickets to rap concerts and football games.” As evident in this rhetoric, the Right has successfully imagined a post-civil rights America, most evident in its universities, where the tables have been turned and the needs, experiences and presence of some groups are increasingly taking precedence over those of whites, leaving this nation less safe, more divided and at a constant risk.
Within this environment, we have seen a dramatic rise of the conservative movement on college campuses. In 2006, Sam Graham-Felsen reported in The Nation that each year “conservative groups pour more than $35 million into hundreds of college campuses.” As of 2004, the Young America’s//check spelling// Foundation had an annual budget of more than $13 million, while the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, another prominent conservative group on campuses, dedicates additional millions for conservative endeavors. The last 20 years have also seen the rise in conservative websites dedicated to exposing the “liberal biases” of faculty and to protecting the rights of conservative newspapers and students against politically correct multiculturalism.
In the early 1990s, there were roughly 70 conservative student newspapers published at colleges and universities across the United States, and estimates today put this number much higher. The Collegiate Network provides technical support and financial backing to conservative college newspapers in an effort to “focus public awareness on the politicization of American college and university classrooms, curricula, student life and the resulting decline of educational standards.” The organization has more than 102 member papers, which reportedly publish over two million copies per year. These papers take up the cause of defending students who stir up controversy with their racist stunts. In 2006, a student at Johns Hopkins University posted an invitation online to a “Halloween in the Hood” gathering at his fraternity house, which described Baltimore as the “motherf*cking hood” and an “H.I.V. Pit;” attendees were encouraged to wear “regional clothing from our locale” and were reportedly greeted with sounds of simulated gunfire as they entered the house. In the wake of the controversy and the suspension of the student who posted the invitation, an editorial appeared in The Primary Source, a conservative student journal at Tufts University, denouncing the punishment as “another victory to political correctness,” although the punishment to the student was subsequently reduced. The editors even argued that the “offensive invitation” was “not a symptom of any institutionalized racism, but of disagreements among members of society regarding the line between funny and disrespectful.” This merely echoed the sentiments of the student who posted the invitation, who described it as “so ridiculous that I thought nobody could take such a thing seriously.” Among the student body, the reaction encompassed some asserting their right to be “insensitive” or un-PC, with others claiming that those protesting were overreacting. As well, the controversy brought on a backlash against student activists demanding accountability and institutional change, which included establishment of a cultural center and more faculty of color. Philip Roberts, a member of the Black Student Union, stated that students have focused their outrage at the protesters themselves, sending “slandering” emails to the BSU president: “People have been walking by saying we are a disgrace to the university.”
Political theater has proven as important to advancing conservative ideologies as more serious venues like newspapers. In keeping with broader trends to disclaim racism under the cover of humor and satire, conservative student groups embrace the power of play to advance their agendas, which mix politics and pleasure in unexpected ways. Indeed, in describing the rationale of affirmative action bake sales, one of their creators, Brendan Steinhauser, former executive director of the Young Conservatives of Texas at the University of Texas at Austin, remarked, “The idea was to parody the actual policies that some colleges had enacted, which gave points to members of certain ethnic groups while at the same time punishing those from other ethnic groups.”
A combustible mixture of perverse satire and coded racist sentiments has informed local and national performances. In November 2006, the College Republicans at the University of Rhode Island announced a scholarship of $100 dollars for “white heterosexual males.” More than 40 students applied, each submitting an application essay on the adversities they had experienced over the course of their lifetime. In actuality, 93 percent of college scholarships go to white students, according to writer Tim Wise. Met with outrage and opposition, the incident elicited the usual defensiveness and explanations, from those focusing on free speech to those who condemned any protest as liberals simply taking themselves too seriously. In fact, these identical responses would penetrate the discourse over and over again. One month later, The Primary Source published a “satirical Christmas Carol.” Based on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the song described Black students as “boisterous yet desirable” and “born into the ghetto,” lamenting the fact that in spite of “Fs, Ds, or Gs,” racial quotas guarantee Black students a position at many of the top universities.
In October 2006, Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group at the University of Michigan, organized a “catch an illegal immigrant” game, which the Michigan Daily reported was the brainchild of Morgan Wilkins, a College Republicans National Committee intern hired “to win the hearts and minds of Michigan 20-somethings.” As in other iterations across the country, students dressed as their idea of undocumented immigrants were tracked down by other students, who pretended to be members of the Minuteman Project. As with similar incarnations organized by College Republican groups in New York, Florida, Texas and California (where students planned a game of “capture the flag” with ICE and illegal immigrant teams), the various immigrant games have prompted accusations of racism, with its defenders arguing for free speech and the importance of public engagement. Said Andrew Boyd, head of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at the University of Michigan: “Political life here on campus has been dry, boring, and stagnant. Someone had to stir things up, and we decided to be that someone.”
If one gathered information about the state of universities today from the various conservative websites, newspapers and talking points, and even the mainstream media, a person would be left with a single conclusion: universities are bastions of liberal thought where conservatives are victimized and demonized daily; they are denied rights of free speech and are generally unwelcome in all aspects of campus life. Yet, according to Howard J. Ehrlich, director of The Prejudice Institute, between 850,000 and one million students-roughly 25 percent of students of color and five percent of white students-experience racially and ethnically-based violence (name calling, verbal aggression, harassing phone calls and “other forms of psychological intimidation”) each year. Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin, in their new book, Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage, report that white use of the n-word is commonplace among white students and that racist jokes are not only prevalent but even expected. In another study, almost one-third of Black students reported that they had experienced racially-based verbal harassment from a faculty member, with another concluding that 24 percent of students at six San Francisco community colleges admitted to verbally harassing students thought to be gay. Another 10 percent acknowledged that they had threatened or engaged in physical violence directed at LGBT students.
In total, although severely underreported, a hate crime occurs on a campus each and every day. That doesn’t include the legally protected racial violence of ghetto parties, scholarship funds, immigrant games and countless other activities that not only defines today’s university culture, but also reveals the ways in which students of color are alienated and rendered as objects of contempt and jokes or threats on college campuses. A vocal movement has successfully portrayed the ivory tower as a place where 1960s radical holdovers are now tenured professors and deans, and where conservative white males are constantly under attack. According to Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the far right, in the wake of the civil rights movement, has attempted “to develop a new white identity, to reassert the very meaning of whiteness, which has been rendered unstable and unclear by the minority challenges of the 1960s.” Not the exclusive purview of a conservative resurgence or even white students, today’s climate reaches a cross-section of campus life that is increasingly hostile to students of color and efforts to secure social justice.
“Decrying the ghetto party as ‘modern-day minstrelsy’ is surely an expression of righteous indignation, but it is only the beginning of the story rather than the end,” argues Jared Sexton, an assistant professor in African American Studies at UC Irvine. “The persistent challenge is to understand why the perverse pleasure of cross-racial caricature and its disavowed currents of mockery, ridicule, envy and hatred are so powerfully attractive to its participants—participants who, as a rule, rely on the dynamics of racial segregation that have produced the ghetto for the very form and substance of the most public and the most intimate aspects of their social lives.”
To be sure, white supremacy and its institutional supports no longer enjoy secure futures; however, the confluence of neoliberalism and neoconservatism allows white students one last chance to party like it’s 1899.
C. Richard King is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University.
David J. Leonard is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University.