On College Republicans, “Build the Wall,” and Anti-Immigrant Bullying

image via Navigate MN

Very brief background for those who don’t already know: at the University of MN, student orgs each get to paint a panel on a long wall to promote what they do. This year, the College Republicans’ panel included the phrase “Build the Wall.” This made a lot of people angry. Someone painted over the panel. Navigate MN, along with La Raza and others, organized a powerful open mic-style action that allowed student activists, multicultural Greek leaders, community members and others to share their stories and stand in solidarity with each other. La Raza and the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (along with the Gender and Sexuality Center and Women’s Center) each held open forums/processing spaces for further conversation and strategizing. President Kaler released a statement expressing grave concern about, yeah, the vandalization of the panel (as opposed to what the panel actually said). Finally, the school’s conservative alternative newspaper printed one of the most bizarre op-eds I’ve ever read in a conservative student paper (which is really saying something) comparing the vandalization of the panel to rape culture.

Mostly, I just wanted to use this space to link to the various organizations doing good work around these issues (links included below), but I’ll share a couple of brief thoughts too:

1. Whether you call the statement “Build the Wall” offensive, racist, xenophobic, hateful, or something else, it’s a messed up thing to say for reasons that transcend politics.
I think we have to start there. This is a campus full of immigrants, and yes, some are undocumented. These are actual people, and whatever your politics are, whatever policies you support, affirming people’s basic humanity is non-negotiable. “Build the Wall” is not a policy position in the same way that “get rid of the estate tax” or “more green jobs” are policy positions. It’s an attack against a specific group of people– both in a direct sense (whose families will be most affected by more draconian immigration laws?) and an indirect one (you don’t have to be a master political strategist to see that the phrase is also a dog whistle euphemism to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria and the votes that come with it, especially this year). These students and community members already face so many obstacles and receive so little support; shouting a slogan like this is straight-up bullying, and can have real consequences in terms of anti-immigrant violence.

2. College Republicans will deflect critique by making this about “free speech” because they know the actual issue is a loser.
For a political ideology that never shuts up about the dangers of “victim culture,” American conservatism loves nothing more than to play the victim, especially when it comes to their positions being challenged. And when your positions are deeply unpopular (and/or actively harmful), it will always be easier to hide behind “stop trying to censor my opinion!” than to actually defend those positions.

“Build the Wall” doesn’t work as actual policy (link, link, link, link). The fact that any media coverage of this situation will likely focus on the rights of conservative students to say messed up things, as opposed to digging into the messed up things themselves, is a victory for those students. Remember, aside from someone (who is not a representative of any organization or official entity) deciding to paint “stop white supremacy” on the panel, no actual censorship is taking place. People having forums and community conversations is free speech. People speaking out about why “Build the Wall” is harmful is free speech. People demanding that the university administration do more to support undocumented students, immigrant students, and students of color in general is free speech.

Conservative students catching feelings about their opinions not being respected has nothing to do with censorship, and it certainly isn’t
oppression (as implied by the aforementioned bizarre op-ed, which also compared openly supporting Trump to a gay student coming out of the closet). But it sure is easier to spin this controversy toward that debate, to frame yourself as a brave freedom fighter, than to actually engage with people’s critiques of your position. I guess we’ll see how well that strategy works in a month.

3. Abstract, intellectual debates about “issues” end. But the students affected by them have to keep moving.
This situation will come and go in the local media, and in the minds of many students. But it’s important to note how this is just one more specific instance of something deeper and more troubling (already, panels representing multicultural Greek orgs have been vandalized). “Microaggression” is not just a buzzwordThese issues affect students in very real ways, and the fundamental inability of so many conservatives (and honestly, a growing number of liberals) to just empathize with students of color, to try to imagine what they have to go through, directly contributes to the continuing inequity within higher ed and beyond.

Luckily, students (along with some staff, faculty, and community members) are pushing back. Here are a few more readings and resources, including official statements from some UMN organizations:

Finally, check out this poem from Tatiana Ormaza and Juliana Hu Pegues; text here: