Racism From Ole Miss Students Hints at a Much Bigger Problem
AI-generated image of a Black student at a protest | created by author using CANVA

Racism From Ole Miss Students Hints at a Much Bigger Problem

Addressing selective empathy on America’s college campuses

There’s a problem on American campuses, and it’s disrupting the learning environment. I’m not talking about the crowds of students protesting the war on Gaza. Rather, I’m referring to the pervasive problem of anti-Black racism, exhibited by the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of White people in educational spaces. Despite the national conversation centered on the purported rise of antisemitism on America’s college campuses, the simultaneous increase of anti-Black racism and discrimination against other racial and ethnic minorities has largely been ignored, sending a chilling message to students that some forms of discrimination are more appalling than others. That it’s okay to express anti-blackness as long as you’re not attacking any other marginalized group.

Case in point, a video shared by student journalist Stacey J. Spiehler exposed an open wound of racism at the University of Mississippi, as anti-war and counter-protesters clashed on campus. A White finance student, identified as JP Staple, taunted a Black student, dancing and making monkey noises directed at her, a dehumanizing spectacle. This group of young white men, draped in the American flag, body-shaming a Black woman, and brandishing their racist beliefs like badges of honor illustrates the hostility many Black students face in college environments. Even more alarming than this one incident is the way many White people not only defended their racist behavior but cheered them on.

Richard Hanania, a right-wing political commentator, posted the video with a problematic caption, “Put away the phones. Be in the moment when you’re mocking the Hamas-loving fat girl.” On top of the obvious body-shaming in the video, the assumption that the Black student supports Hamas, a militant regime controlling Gaza, is not only preposterous but malicious, given that student protesters and their organizations have advocated for divestment in Israel and the cessation of violence in the Middle East. Conflating anti-war protests with pro-Hamas or antisemitic sentiment are misleading talking points that continue to rear their ugly heads. The video revealed a group of White men, protected by police officers while verbally assaulting a Black woman — their behavior dripping in misogynoir. Of course, this incident reflects a broader problem on America’s college campuses — anti-Black racism and the complicity that enables its spread.

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A conservative legal analyst, Phil Holloway, commented, “Looks like I’ll be adding Ole Miss to the list of colleges to visit with my oldest,” when sharing the video online. While the flagrant display of racism would cause some parents to strike the University of Mississippi from their list of potential colleges, Holloway appears to view racism as a selling point. Even a Congressman weighed in to co-sign the student’s reprehensible behavior. U.S. Representative Mike Collins, a Republican, shared the video with the caption, “Ole Miss taking care of business,” seemingly applauding the student’s unabashed display of racism.

This disturbing incident is reminiscent of the racism embedded in our nation’s history. The University of Mississippi acquired the nickname “Ole Miss” from a term of forced endearment used during the Antebellum period to refer to the slave master’s wife — a term now considered derogatory. It’s no surprise that a college that flaunts its ties to chattel slavery, nestled in a state where Confederate soldiers are celebrated, would harbor a toxic culture of racism among its student body. Yet, the cliche suggesting Southerners should expect racism doesn’t lessen the sting. We’re confronted with an unacceptable status quo, where anti-Black racism is regarded as par for the course, while other forms of discrimination prompt collective outrage and calls for action.

Jamele Hill, a sports journalist known for her outspoken critique of racism in American society, questioned which fraternity the White student who taunted the Black student represents. She then shed light on an issue many Black Americans have identified — selective empathy. Hill noted that “we have recently seen endless conversations and action items created about antisemitism, but I’m guessing that same energy won’t be there to protect this open hostility directed at Black students.” While there’s been a concerted effort to address antisemitism, America’s institutions have shown reluctance to confront the racism Black students routinely endure on campuses. Despite Black people being the most likely targets of hate crimes, there is little momentum toward mitigating anti-Black racism. The disparity in response highlights the need to extend the same vigor and urgency in addressing anti-Black racism and ensuring that Black students feel safe and supported on college campuses.

Students have the right to protest, even if their views are in the minority. However, there is a fine line between expressing your beliefs and participating in racist taunts toward those with opposing views. While conservatives often portray White students as too fragile to learn about racism — suggesting they’d wilt when confronted with the harsh realities of our nation’s history — a group of White students engaging in racist taunts demonstrates that they’re not as unaware as some White parents would have us believe. Anti-war protesters face hostility not only from the police and outside agitators but also from their fellow students, many of whom harbor prejudicial beliefs, as James M. Thomas, a sociology professor at the University of Mississippi, said it best. “Students were calling for an end to genocide. They were met with racism.”

As we look ahead, it’s crucial to consider the consequences of allowing anti-Black racism to run rampant on college campuses — how it impacts students’ ability to feel safe and supported by institutions or even consider attending a university. While some racists will flock to the University of Mississippi, Black students may be hesitant to attend, particularly after such a recent example highlights the continued issue of anti-Black racism. What message does it send when school administrators and community leaders focus on addressing the discrimination that impacts Jewish people while ignoring the rise of anti-Black racism, Islamaphobia, and xenophobia?

Shouldn’t we be pushing back against all forms of hatred to foster a more inclusive college environment? If not, we risk creating a society where some forms of discrimination are taboo while others are allowed to flourish — a disastrous outcome. Only by taking a stand against anti-Black racism, along with other forms of hatred, can colleges hope to create a sense of belonging and safety for students, faculty, and staff.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of Allison Wiltz's work on Medium.