In February 2012, Wheaton College was jolted by a racial incident infamously known as: #chapeltweets. Participants in the Rhythm & Praise chapel service at this small evangelical liberal arts college (with the motto: “For Christ and His Kingdom”) were publicly mocked and insulted on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook. The chapel service, which presented forms of music, dancing, and painting largely from the African American tradition, was derided as an unworthy expression of worship. Tweets and memes ranged from being naïve and racially insensitive to malicious and borderline overtly racist. Examples include (more at the end of the post):
In the aftermath of these and other tweets, many students responded by downplaying the importance of race, claiming that the tweets were not offensive and that students of color who were upset were being overly sensitive. While the initial furor of the Chapel Tweets incident has died down, students of color continue to be underrepresented at Wheaton College. Moreover, the elephant in the room has not been addressed—that is, Wheaton College and other white evangelical institutions in the U.S. continue to operate to varying degrees under the framework of white supremacy.
Yes, white supremacy is the ethos of my alma mater, but here is what I am not saying: I do not believe that the people running the school or even most of the student body are white supremacists, if by the term, you mean they embody racial hatred and believe that the white race is superior to others. No, it is much more subtle (and systemic) than that—but this is the ethos of Wheaton, nonetheless.
I graduated from Wheaton in May 2013 and could very easily rid myself of anything concerning it, but two main things have urged me to write about my experience with white supremacy at Wheaton College. First, white supremacy is evil and when left unchecked has spawned the suffering of countless innocent people all over the globe. Second, I actually do care about the future of Wheaton, because I believe there are good people there who could transform it into an institution that cultivates students and leaders for improving our world.
Today, the inertia of white supremacy continues to drive racial inequalities in the U.S.—Wheaton College is no exception to this phenomena. I want to briefly outline some racial inequalities in the U.S. then talk about how racial inequalities at Wheaton are embedded in this system of white supremacy as well. When referring to Wheaton College, I am working primarily with an understanding of white supremacy as a system. See Tim Wise’s definition below:
As a system, racism is an institutional arrangement, maintained by policies, practices and procedures — both formal and informal — in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others, and in which such persons receive better or worse treatment than others, because of their respective racial identities. Additionally, institutional racism involves denying persons opportunities, rewards, or various benefits on the basis of race [whether intentionally or unintentionally], to which those individuals are otherwise entitled. In short, racism is a system of inequality, based on race.
White supremacy is the operationalized form of racism in the United States and throughout the Western world. Racism is like the generic product name, while white supremacy is the leading brand, with far and away the greatest market share.
WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE U.S.
This blog is insufficient to provide an adequate lesson in the history and development of white supremacy, such as: European conquest and colonization, Native American genocide, Black-African slavery, the Jim Crow Era, programmatic racial segregation, New Jim Crow, etc. Still, let’s examine, briefly, some current racial inequalities that people could explain by saying that either, “people of all races have equal opportunities, thus disparities are a result of flaws in certain groups’ cultures” or current disparities are a function of white supremacy.
According to a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center, wealth gaps between white, Hispanic, and black households have risen to record highs in the United States.
In 2009, the median net worth (MNW) of white households was “20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households” (Kochhar, Fry, and Taylor 2011:1). The U.S. poverty rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is 25.8% and 23.2%, respectively; whereas poverty rate for whites is 11.6% (Macartney, Bishaw, and Fontenot 2013).
A study of all 3,141 counties in the United States, published by the University of California Press, provided “a place-based portrait of spatial inequality and concentrated poverty over the past two decades” (Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino 2012:370). The study finds there are disproportionately high levels of poverty concentration among black and Latina/o populations compared to non-Hispanic whites. Based on the latest data from 2009, 36.3% of the total black population lives in high-poverty places, while 49.2% of poor blacks are concentrated in high-poverty places. For all Hispanics, 23.9% live in high-poverty places, while 33.3% of poor Hispanics live in these communities as well. In sharp contrast, only 11.1% of non-Hispanic whites live in poor communities (Lichter et al. 2012). Additionally, research indicates that over 60% of black and Hispanic students attend public schools where the majority of students are below the poverty line; compared to only “18 percent of white students” who attend high-poverty schools (Logan, Minca, and Adar 2012:288).
I hope it is obvious that I do not believe that these stark racial disparities are a result of morally devoid cultures in black and brown communities. Social scientists have presented ample evidence for the origins of racial segregation in past discriminatory housing practices such as “redlining,” restrictive covenants, and steering (Massey and Denton 1993; Sernau 2006). Racial residential segregation of people of color is one of the most damning tools of white supremacy, which perpetuates race disparities in areas of wealth, incarceration rates, employment discrimination, and more. Another leading cause of racial disparities in the U.S. is related to the underrepresentation of students of color in higher education. It is evident that a degree in higher education can be a ticket out of poverty.
RACIAL INEQUALITIES AT MY ALMA MATER
When we examine the racial demographics of Wheaton College, through data from the US Census Bureau and Wheaton College’s Office of Institutional Research (only accessible while on-campus through Wheaton’s intranet), we see that Wheaton falls unacceptably below average in providing equal access to education for black and Latina/o students. Data for 2010, indicates that the enrollment percentage at Wheaton College was a paltry 2.90% for black or African-Americans and 3.90% for Hispanic or Latina/o students. In comparison, enrollment at peer institutions during the same time period was 9.20% for black or African-Americans and 6.20% for Hispanic or Latina/o students. Enrollment for all 4-year, private nonprofit colleges/universities in the U.S., during the same time, was 12.92% for black or African-Americans and 8.06% for Hispanic or Latina/o students.
In other words minority enrollment averages at peer institutions are double what they are at Wheaton; minority enrollment averages in all 4-year, private nonprofit colleges/universities are three times greater than they are at Wheaton. Moreover, in 1976, the total minority undergraduate population in the U.S. was 16.6%. By 2004, the total minority undergraduate population in the U.S. had nearly doubled to 32.5%, while Wheaton College, in 2012, had remained thirty years behind the national trends at a disgustingly low 17.5% total minority undergraduate population—or as the Wheaton website describes it “just shy of 20% of the campus.”
So what is Wheaton’s excuse for denying equal access to higher education for black and Latina/o students, thereby participating in the larger framework of white supremacy? Certainly, it is not the lack of black and Latina/o students in higher education as evinced by the significantly higher averages at other schools. (Cue attempts to justify low enrollment rates for students of color at Wheaton by attributing it to “personal choice” or something like that. Also, this is where many people will say, in so many words, “Yeah, but Wheaton isn’t all that bad when you compare it to other similar colleges that are doing a horrible job at enrolling students of color!”)
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS HAVE TO DO WITH CHAPELTWEETS?
Wheaton College does not have to have an active policy of denying people of color access to their institution in order to perpetuate white supremacy, but the fact remains that African-American and Latina/o students are egregiously underrepresented at Wheaton. Of course, this reality is complex, but based on my three years as a student and two years as the Executive Vice President of Community Diversity on Student Government, I want to offer what I think contributes to Wheaton’s complicity in white supremacy.
After the #chapeltweets incident, a few dozen students rallied together to respond to the insensitivity and racism of their fellow students. We met through the late hours of the night trying to figure out how to respond. #Chapeltweets was unique, because it was so public and galvanized our emotions and desire for change. Students of color (and a few white students) had had enough with racial insensitivity, ignorant jokes, and lack of institutional support for race-related equity on campus. So, we drafted a petition called, The Diversity Initiatives: A petition for institutional change. In it, we described the reality of white supremacy at Wheaton College as such:
The pain, frustration, and anger of many students at Wheaton College stems from a much deeper place than #chapeltweets. Many unique challenges for students of minority cultures, races, or ethnicities exist. These unique challenges do not affect ALL [students of color] or ONLY [students of color], but those students who do not fit into the dominant American, white, middle to upper- middle class, culture. While overt racism is not rampant, issues of racial prejudice, cultural supremacy, ethnocentrism, and insensitivity afflict these students in profound ways. For many, it is not an acute, shooting pain that can be described in one incident. Rather, it is the dull, subtle, and constant reminder that students of minority cultures are merely invited guests in someone else’s home. Furthermore, the College has unintentionally affirmed and reinforced the elevated status of dominant white culture among our community, as a result of inadequate intervention in institutional practices that affect the campus climate.
The emphasis on quantity over quality, regarding the approach to increasing diversity, has neglected the experiences of minority culture students once they arrive on campus.
Whether it is the lack of professors and staff members with whom we can identify culturally (88.3% all-white faculty and 87.7% all-white staff), the lack of College Union events that are inclusive of people of color (91% of all artists/bands hosted by College Union between 2000 and 2012 were white), the lack of academic material that educates our peers about white supremacy, the lack of affirmation of our own cultures on a less-than-superficial basis, or the lack of significant support for student-led initiatives that attempt to promote racial understanding on campus, students of color eventually realize that Wheaton College is an institution primarily for its white American students.
My former Professor of Anthropology wrote that, “Racism does not require racists. All it needs to thrive is people who deny the wider historical and cultural context in which their words and thoughts live.” I’m here to tell you that the denial of white supremacy is the pervasive attitude among Wheaton students. Year after year, a loud contingent of Wheaton College students vehemently deride “student-led initiatives which [attempt] to promote racial harmony and reconciliation” on campus.
Most white students at Wheaton, however, will tell you that racism is not a problem on campus. They are partly right. Most white students at Wheaton are willfully oblivious to the effects of white supremacy on campus, because it literally only affects a pittance of the campus population. So it’s understandable that white students would say that something that they do not see is not a problem. Let me take this brief moment to acknowledge the voices of white students who feel marginalized by my words. First, I have found that white people who acknowledge the reality of white supremacy tend not to get offended when people of color merely state that it exists or when we point out that most white people deny its existence. If you are white and you are aware that white supremacy is a problem, not only in the U.S., but also systemically at Wheaton, then I am probably not describing you in this post. If you feel offended by my description of white apathy toward racial realities at Wheaton, then I can think of no other reason for you being offended other than you do not agree that white supremacy is a problem on campus, and thus, you would fall into the category of students that I am describing. To deny white supremacy is to deny the experiences of students of color who are affected by it. To deny the experiences of anyone is to deny their existence, which is why students affected by white supremacy are further marginalized on campus.
I can tell you what all of this means to me. It means that as a result of Wheaton’s failure to educate its students on the reality of white supremacy in the country and abroad, and as a result of the racially apathetic student culture that derives from the institutional failure to affirm minority cultures, that I will not be recommending Wheaton College to any students of color without any serious caveats for how they will feel alienated merely because they won’t fit in with the dominant and celebrated white culture on campus. I know for a fact that I am not the only alumnus of color who feels this way. So if Wheaton wants to increase its enrollment averages for African-American and Latina/o students, I suggest (for now):
- Make radical changes to how the most-supported campus organizations promote and exalt white culture
- Drastically increase funding for students of color from low-income communities to attend Wheaton
- Implement a serious academic curriculum that lightens the burden of small student groups like Solidarity Cabinet to educate the campus community about race and puts it on the faculty through a required “gen-ed” on race relations in the U.S.
- Be sincere about claims related to hiring more faculty of color (and all claims related to diversity for that matter)
At this point, I am not interested in talking about small changes to the structure (and infrastructure) of Wheaton College. If it were even 20 years ago, then maybe we could still give Wheaton a pat on the back for trying to resist white supremacy through one or two added scholarships for Latina/o students, a half-funded scholarship for African-American students, a small change here, a small change there…but it’s almost 2014 and what we need is results! Real results are past due. We will celebrate Wheaton’s achievements on race relations when they are worth celebrating for our time.
I’m speaking to everyone in the Wheaton Community whether you are a student, faculty, administrator, staff, or alumni. Let’s urge the institution to put its money where its mouth is and to provide equal access to higher education for African-American and Latina/o students, immediately—because diversity is more than just “colorful” photos on pamphlets, brochures and websites, and thirty years behind national trends is unacceptable.
Kochhar, Rakesh, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor. 2011. Weatlh Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. Retrieved (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/07/SDT-Wealth-Report_7-26-11_FINAL.pdf).
Lichter, Daniel T., Domenico Parisi, and Michael C. Taquino. 2012. “The Geography of Exclusion: Race, Segregation, and Concentrated Poverty.” Social Problems 59(3):364–88.
Logan, John R., Elisabeta Minca, and Sinem Adar. 2012. “The Geography of Inequality: Why Separate Means Unequal in American Public Schools.” Sociology of Education 85(3):287–301.
Macartney, Suzanne, Alemayehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot. 2013. Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011. Washington, D.C.: United States Census Bureau. Retrieved (http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-17.pdf).
Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.” in The inequality reader : contemporary and foundational readings in race, class, and gender, edited by David B. Grusky and Szonja Szelényi. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Sernau, Scott. 2006. Worlds Apart : Social Inequalities in a Global Economy. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.
Related Images of Wheaton College Racism:
 MNW “is the accumulated sum of assets (houses, cars, savings and checking accounts, stocks and mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc.) minus the sum of debt (mortgages, auto loans, credit card debt, etc.)” (Kochhar, Fry, and Taylor 2011:4).
 Individuals were considered poor if they lived in families with incomes below the official U.S. government poverty threshold for their family size.
I am adding this addendum because I do care about Wheaton College, very much so. Do not take my strong language as hateful, but please read it as passionate (and frustrated with failed efforts to work within the system for two difficult years). I tried to make it clear that I do not believe that people are actually operating as conscious white supremacists, but evidently that is not as clear to some people.
Either way, PLEASE READ: An Open Letter to Students and Alumni of Color at Wheaton College by Brian Howell.
Thank you, Brian, for this follow up to my blogpost. There is nothing in this post with which I disagree. You certainly emphasized some of the progress more than I did, and that is fine. My intention was not to imply that nothing has been done at all, or that there weren’t any people at Wheaton who have been sincerely trying to work hard to change the institution for a very long time.
Indeed, there are many people striving for change who I have worked with personally…and there are many who resisted me and continue to resist change as well.
I still affirm my claims that the institution has not supported these individuals enough to make the changes that are necessary for the college to be where it should be in 2014.
By the institution, then, I’m referring to people who for whatever reason haven’t made the decisions that would radically change the policies that continue to support white supremacy. My one fear with your blogpost is that some people might say, “see Wheaton has been making some progress! Therefore, we do not need to keep putting pressure on them to do more.”…To do what is necessary.
Finally, my post was indeed a call to action, a call to stay engaged or to get even more engaged, NOT a call to withdraw from all things Wheaton.
Thanks again for joining the conversation (as you have been for so long. Indeed, I learned a lot of what I know, from you.)