American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2016

The Concerns of Student Protesters and What Sociology Has to Offer

Victor Ray, The University of Tennessee Knoxville

Causes of Protests and Student Demands

At the root of some student complaints are worries over representation, campus climate, and a nagging sense of the failure of diversity policies to address issues of structural inequality. A large body of sociological research on diversity and affirmative action in higher education lends credence to student complaints about a lack of representation. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, faculty of color remain underrepresented.

Affirmative action aimed at increasing the proportion of nonwhite students was an institutional response to a prior year of protest. While a large body of policies were classified as affirmative action, they typically had measurable outcomes and clear guidelines. With the 1978 Supreme Court Bakke decision, affirmative action was replaced with what scholars have called a diversity rationale for organizational inclusion. Sociologists have long been suspicious of diversity discourse detached from specific policies. As Bell and Hartmann (2007) point out, although many Americans support diversity in the abstract, when pushed they are deeply uncomfortable talking about diversity and see inclusion as a threat to unity. Students at many universities have pointed to organizational ambivalence towards diversity policies as a main reason for protests. As with prior generations of racialized protests in higher education student concerns about diversity are reflected in calls for increasing the number of faculty of color, diversifying the curriculum, and diversity training are central to many of these protests.

Microaggressions Matter

Students at many universities have protested against the microaggressions they maintain are a feature of the campus climate at predominantly white institutions. The media’s discussion of microaggressions has been characterized by a deep misunderstanding of how social scientists employ the term. According to Sue and colleagues (2007) microaggressions come in three main forms. Microassaults corresponds to the overtly racialized language of the past. Microinsults question the qualifications or ability of people of color. And microinvalidations nullify the validity of thoughts or feelings of people of color. Unlike sociological models of discrimination that rely on intent, microaggressions need not be intentional to cause harm. Although the media has tended to characterize microaggressions as minor slights that students of color and non-binary students are overreacting to, microaggressions can have serious health, performance, and psychological consequences for those who experience them (Nadal et al. 2014). Students involved in protests see microaggressions as a racial climate issue and have called for administrative interventions. Although this may seem farfetched, delegitimizing microaggressions is not dissimilar from the well documented historical movement from open to covert forms of discrimination (Bonilla-Silva 2010; Omi and Winant 2015).Race theory for a long time simply served white interests. Students are calling attention to behaviors and environments they feel are discriminatory in an attempt to delegitimize these practices.

Radical Flanks and Institutionalizing Change

Although student movements have been considered too radical by many commentators, it is important to remember that what is considered “radical” is a context-specific social and historical construction. Voting rights for blacks and women was once considered radical. Research on so-called “radical flanks” (Haines 1984) shows that activist movements can help shape reforms to channel support to more mainstream movement groups. A classic example of this is Malcolm X famously telling Coretta Scott King that he was raising hell so Martin’s reforms could get through. Student movements may not have their demands met immediately, but participation in movements can have unanticipated long-term effects on organizations.

Sociological research is clear that prior generations of radical student protests have remade the educational landscape through the institutionalization of ethnic and black studies programs (Rojas 2007). Similarly, although her research was focused on the profession of social work, Joyce Bell’s (2014) study of the Black Power Movement’s influence on social work has implications for the institutionalization of racial concerns in organizations generally. Bell outlines a process whereby movement actors may consciously move into mainstream institutions. This incorporation allows movements to influence the long-term direction of organizations. Students involved in the current round of protests may follow a similar path, taking concerns regarding race, gender, and class-based equity into the labor force. Although this is not a response to the immediate demands of campus movements, the socialization into movement goals and ideology can have a larger influence on organizational structures than the initial protests.

The Importance of Intersectionality

For the current generation of student protests, intersectionality has moved from a theoretical to practical imperative. The students involved in these protests have deeply engaged with intersectionality theories to argue that gender, racial, and class-based oppression are always connected. Perusing their demands, one is struck by how deeply this body of theory has influenced students' thinking. Students are making links between publicized issues surrounding campus sexual assaults and a lack of racial and gender representation in the curriculum. Although intersectionality may still be a fringe area of study in many mainstream sociology departments, students are embracing the complexities of intersecting identities as a basis for political coalitions and changing practices. 


Bell, Joyce. 2014. “The Black Power Movement and American Social Work.” New York. Columbia University Press.

Bell, Joyce, and Douglass Hartmann. 2007. “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘ Happy Talk .’” American Sociological Review. 72(6):895-914.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2010. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Third Edition. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Rownman & Littlefield.

Haines, Herbert H. 1984. “Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970.” Social Problems 32(1):31–43.

Nadal, Kevin L., Katie E. Griffin, Yinglee Wong, Sahran Hamit, and Morgan Rasmus. 2014. “The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Mental Health: Counseling Implications for Clients of Color.” Journal of Counseling & Development 92(1):57–66.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 2015. Racial Formation in the United States. Third Edit. New York: Routledge.

Rojas, F. 2007. From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline.

Sue, Derald Wing et al. 2007. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” The American psychologist 62(4):271–86.