What! Lynched Bananas, Swastikas on College Campuses?

Colleges can do more to counter the intergroup disrespect among students

Posted Sep 06, 2017

After the Charlottesville tiki-torch KKK, and the next day white nationalist rallies, college professors are talking about the need to discuss American racial dynamics in their classes. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “…many professors across the country… are changing lesson plans in response to the events in Virginia. For some educators, incorporating Charlottesville into course material goes further than using the event as an example in the news; it’s a way to protest the white supremacy beyond the classroom, and to prevent the ideology of hate from reaching students.” (1, my emphasis)

What, I wonder, have professors in relevant disciplines been doing before this moment in our history? Whatever has been going on in those college and university classes, it has let something sinister live on and grow. And what have college and university administrators been thinking and doing?

How is it, I wonder, that we, the thinkers, cannot see the problems we are creating for ourselves? Anti-gay and lesbian graffiti does not appear on a campus because a college or university picked a few students with anti-group attitudes. Turns out, all students go onto college campuses with some anxiety about how to be around, let alone interact with people not “…like me.” I say again, ALL students. There are no innocents. How could it be otherwise?

Since we broke the yoke of Jim Crow legal racial segregation, America has been in a state of constant and swift intergroup-contact change. We went from being segregated in all social spheres to talking about race-relations to desegregation to integration to diversity (to include women) to neo-diversity.

Today it’s neo-diversity; the interpersonal situation where each of us has some occasion to encounter and sometimes interact with people from different groups by way of race, yes, but sexual-orientation, bodily-condition, gender-identity, mental-health-condition, religion, ethnicity, and on and on. And colleges and universities are where that neo-diversity situation is most visible, alive, and active because colleges and universities have made it so.

Are incoming students prepared for that when they get to a campus? Not by a long shot.

Consider their experiences before these youngsters arrive on a college campus to study and live. Experiences limited by lots of de facto segregation in schools, places of worship, neighborhoods (2). Consider that, when it comes to diversity, Americans are “very anxious” and that increasing diversity “…inspires in them no sense of hope”(3). Consider, then, the conversations too many (soon to be college students) have sat in on at home, over lunch, over dinner; conversations about “them”; gay, lesbian, transgender people, Muslims, immigrants. With all that in their social psychology, young people, as new students, arrive on a college campus that is neo-diverse.

Life is a big town, I heard a comedian say.

Well, college is a big town. Into that town, some students come and walk around with thoughts and (on the tip of their tongues) language that does not fit the town charter. In that psychological context, leaders of colleges and universities have been too narrow in their focus on how smart these young adults are, and on how to make them feel connected through sports, campus eateries, and library coffee shops. Too little effort has been made to orient these new citizens to the town they are now part of; the new social situation, with the new social demands pressing in on the everyday activities of this town’s campus life. From 2000 to 2002, I served as North Carolina State’s first Vice Provost for Diversity and African American Affairs (2000 to 2002), and I saw up close, and fought against, this avoidance by university leadership (4).

Professors complain about “helicopter parenting” because we see how that parenting style leaves students to struggle to “adult” when they come to our campuses. Yet, colleges and universities do little to shape those new students and help them transition into our adult-demanding environment. We assign them common readings that do not help that transition because the books are about big ideas, are fictions or non-fictions that have no immediate connection to the new adult lives they are starting. We leave these young people to their own devices when it comes to figuring out how they should adjust and expand their behavioral repertoires to the social realities of our campuses.

At too many first-year convocations, too much focus is given to the fun of their coming experiences when these young people have come to the occasion hoping for challenge and guidance. To quote a recent graduate of my university: “At convocation they spent too much time trying to entertain us. I went to convocation because I thought I would get some guidance about being at this big university.”

You see, we have not been using those first opportunities to socialize these youngsters to what it takes to be a good citizen on campus. We seem to assume they already know or will figure it out. We give them no help. And then we act surprised by a noose, a swastika, lynched-bananas, a fraternity-chant filled with racial slurs and images of lynching, jokes about women, harassment of Muslim students, hateful graffiti splashed across the front of a campus LGBT center. Somehow, we are shocked when they engage in behaviors inappropriate and disruptive to the campus climate we say we want. But we should not be surprised; that is our fault for not using our voice.

Since 1976, I have been a citizen on a number of college and university campuses and for the last 30 years at North Carolina State University. Yet, when as a social psychologist I have been asked, “What can universities be doing better to address intergroup tensions on campus?,” I look to my time in the U.S. Navy. When that military town finally began to move past desegregation toward true integration, aside from policy changes, the most important step taken was to address the citizens of the Navy, the sailors, directly.

During my time as an enlisted man (1972 to 1976) the U.S. Navy was working through some dark and difficult days. Imagine this: race riots aboard ships carrying weapons of mass destruction.

I don’t have to imagine. January 1973, onboard the USS Intrepid, carrying 5,000 men, of which I was one, while at sea in the Mediterranean we had three days of on again, off again, race rioting. Three days of black sailors attacking white sailors, white sailors attacking black sailors, onboard a ship of war, weapons of mass destruction all around.

This was no isolated incident in our Navy. In his important book Black Sailor, White Navy, Naval historian John Darrell Sherwood has documented that shipboard riot and also documented that from 1970 to 1975 in the US Navy, ashore and at sea, there were 350 major racial incidents (5). That racial unrest was caused by leftover Jim Crow prejudice and bigotry that meant that too many white sailors felt free to refer to black sailors using racial slurs. That racial unrest was caused by poor, inadequate equal opportunity policies that left that prejudice and bigotry unrestrained.

But under the leadership of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Navy was correcting itself; turning and guiding the ship of the Navy out of the dark and stormy difficult waters of interracial disrespect. Policies were re-written; new policies were written, established and enforced. Yet Admiral Zumwalt was advised that that was not enough.

Heeding that advice, Zumwalt used his voice to speak loud and clear to the whole fleet through his Z-grams; a memorandum that all Navy personnel were required to read. About the changes the Navy was enacting, in his most famous Z-gram, Admiral Zumwalt said to all of the Navy’s personnel:

“It is evident that we need to maximize our efforts to improve the lot of our minority Navymen. I am convinced that there is no place in the Navy for insensitivity. We are determined to do better.

Meanwhile, we are counting on your support to help seek out and eliminate those demeaning areas of discrimination that plague our minority shipmates. Ours must be a navy family that recognizes no artificial barriers of race, color, or religion. There is no black navy, no white navy—just one navy—the United States navy.” (5)

Same as Zumwalt, college and university leadership must let students know, in no uncertain terms, what it takes to be a good citizen on a neo-diverse campus. Immediate upon their arrival, a strong and clear message to shape new students' campus citizenship behavior must be delivered. When I say immediate, I mean before classes start; at orientation, at first-year convocation.

I am not just talking in the abstract. At North Carolina State University, at this year’s (2017) fall convocation for new students, I was the keynote speaker. I had a lot to say to those 5,000 young people about what it would take to be a good citizen of “our town.”  Among other things, I roared this:

“Welcome to the town of NC State University.

Wherever your Toto is, later today call your Toto and say, “…Toto, I’m not in NC anymore.” Wherever you are from internationally, nationally, locally, you’re not back-home anymore. You are now a citizen of the town of NC State.   

Here today, at convocation, among all of you gathered in Reynolds Coliseum ready for your first year at NCSU, none of you here has the same experiences and backgrounds. That means that from the first moment you came into this town called NC State, you began to experience other peoples, other students’, legitimate but different thoughts, feelings and perspectives. If you try to get through your time here hoping to ignore the truth of that social reality, relying on false categories, you will have a miserable experience at this university. If you try to rely on false categories, you will also be showing yourself to have an inadequate, immature theory of mind.

The theory of mind is the straightforward idea and awareness that other people, not just you, not just people like you, have legitimate thoughts, feelings, and preferences. If you try to rely on false categories, you will also be showing yourself to have a poor, immature, unhealthy theory of mind.

Welcome to NC State University; not high school, not junior college, not even college, but university. We are already doing serious work. Before you got here we were doing serious work. After you graduate and leave, we will be doing serious work. And while you are here, we have serious work to do. And while you are here at NC State you will have the chance to do work to improve and change our world. All of you will have the chance to contribute to that work because everybody here is Wolfpack.

To be a citizen of the town of NC State…means…everybody here is Wolfpack. To be a member of the Wolfpack...means…no false categories (stereotypes) used here (not in this town). To be a member of the Wolfpack…means you must stop and drop your high-school theory of mind. To be a member of the Wolfpack…means you must stop and drop your high school US versus THEM thinking. To be a member of the Wolfpack…means you must interact with the person, not the group you think that person represents. To be a member of the Wolfpack…means… no matter their background group membership we expect and demand you to interact with your co-student peers with respect.     

With my keynote address (6) I was trying to counteract what has gone on before at our convocation. You see, too often in higher education right now, that beginning for college students is focused on keeping them entertained and delivering no challenge to their “back home” way of interacting with people from different groups. I was not going to do that, and I did not.

Look, those of us in higher education have seen that a passive approach has led to what some are calling an epidemic of intergroup disrespect among students in institutions of higher education. We can do better. We must do better and with all deliberate speed.

Rupert W. Nacoste is an Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect (2015, NY: Prometheus Books). 


1. Zamudio-Suarez, F. (2017). Professors See Charlottesville as a Starting Point for Discussions on Race, Chronicle of Higher Education (August 18): http://www.chronicle.com/article/Professors-See-Charlottesville/240961?cid=wcontentgrid_6_32ad_5 

2. Bonilla-Silva, E. & Embrick, D.G. (2007).  “Every Place Has a Ghetto…”: The significance of whites’ social and residential segregation. Symbolic Interaction, 30, 323-345. Quillan, L. & Campbell, M. E. (2003); see also, Beyond black and white: The present and future of multiracial friendship segregation.  American Sociological Review, 68, 540-566.

3. Dokoupil, T. (2013, October 15), “’Very anxious’: Is America scared of diversity?” Report on a  national Esquire-NBC-News survey (http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/15/20961149-very-anxious-is-america-scared-of-diversity?lite).

4. Nacoste, R.W. (2010). Making gumbo in the university. Austin, TX: Plainview Press.

5. Sherwood, John Darrell (2007). Black sailor, white Navy: Racial unrest in the fleet during the Vietnam War era. New YorK: New York University Press (https://nyupress.org/books/9780814740361/)

My Convocation speech to the 5, 000 member NCSU class of 2021, it is now available on youtube.  The video is 1 hour and 18 minutes because it is the video of the entire Convocation. If you don’t want to experience the band and cheerleaders, here’s a guide. 

 6. At time-mark 28:51 the Chancellor begins making his important remarks about Charlottesville. He then moves into his introduction of me.  At time-mark 37:31, I begin my thirty minute speech.  Here is the youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLBUHyrQyXI&feature=youtu.be

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