U.S. election

Why did college-educated whites vote for Trump?

This election result proves schooling doesn't mean enlightenment
Photo: Nottingham Trent University

More than half of the college-educated white men who voted in the U.S. presidential election chose Donald Trump. Why did this happen?

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Overall, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a 4-point margin when it came to votes from whites, both men and women, with a college education. Their choice for president came as a shock to many.

Republican candidates haven’t lost the white college-educated vote in six decades. But given the magnitude of Trump’s lunacy, one would have expected this particular electorate to come to its senses. It even seemed a possibility at one point during the campaign. But as with the 2008 election when these voters didn't cast ballots for Obama, they chose to be on the wrong side of history this time as well.

Many assume that white college-degree holders would know better than to vote for someone like Trump, whose crude misogynist and bigoted remarks filled the campaign and whose chief advisor is an avowed white supremacist.

The presumption is that schooling imparts knowledge and enlightenment, making decisions such as the one between Trump and Clinton rather straightforward. The corollary to this idea is that only the uneducated masses would be unable to grasp the dangers of a Trump presidency.

Schooling and education aren’t one and the same.

But these suppositions have proven to be false and should be laid to rest once and for all. While the majority of non-college-educated voters did vote for Trump, this majority was made up of white adults. Non-white non-college-educated voters opted overwhelmingly for Clinton. A segment of college-educated voters were enlightened enough to vote for Hillary — and that segment was also overwhelmingly non-white.

The issue here is race and how it intersects with class. It is wrong to think that racial and class biases can disappear simply through the acquisition of a college degree. Schooling and education aren’t one and the same.

In my experience as a minority student who has gone to university in France and Canada, I’ve seen many students graduate not only with their prejudices unchallenged and intact but actually reinforced and strengthened. I’ve seen students come to class not with the intention of learning but with the smug attitude that they don’t need to learn, that they already know everything, and that a college degree is merely a confirmation of that fact. They were not all white men, but what they had in common was that they were all privileged in one way or another, whether it was women with white and class privilege or non-white men with male and class privilege.

Critical self-reflection was a concept unknown to them; instead, they were there for themselves. Their university prospectus said their degree would make them qualified leaders in their chosen fields. As a special guest at the graduation ceremony for B.C.’s Simon Fraser University in 2014, Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female prime minister, told the assembled students that they must help Iranian women oppressed by their government. What they were not told is that fixing the world requires fixing themselves first, as they are often part of the problem. Their privileged upbringing probably never required them to evaluate how much space they take up in society, and the university told them that the world was theirs for the taking. White men already subconsciously know that they have a dominant place in society; university degrees only give them additional validation.

But universities are diverse places. The ambitions of these students were checked and the world they had taken for granted was contested. The movements for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and many others has left an impact on campuses. Gender studies, women’s studies, African-American studies, safe spaces, and affirmative action are examples of the unprivileged staking their rightful claim in universities.

Here they were, being challenged by those whom they never thought could challenge them, in schools that had told them they were the future leaders of the world rather than people who would have to share it with others. In my experience, when the privileged found themselves in these settings, they reacted to by digging in their heels. When they could not take it, they ran for cover and took refuge in their privileges. University thus failed to change their minds and they managed to graduate with flying colours.

In this context, along comes a man like Donald Trump who wants to “make America great again.” We know the kind of people these slogans are going to appeal to and empower.

So-called educated white males voted for Trump. They did not vote for him despite their time in college but because of their time in college. Racial constructs have an ontological meaning and are entrenched in real-life materialities. With the growing visibility of minorities in college, the dominant learn that their power is being taken away from them, and that if they don’t do anything about it, it will be taken away sooner rather than later.

Many minority students have witnessed first-hand how these students sometimes react to when they’re being challenged. Resentment towards affirmative action, racist graffiti and tagging, support for funding cuts for progressive programs and student groups, demands for “safe spaces” for men on campus, and a general feeling that minority groups are asking for too much are a few examples.

The only thing that has happened now is that these attitudes have come out with an open and unabashed endorsement of Trump. We shouldn’t be so surprised.

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