Concerned Student 1950, led by University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler, speaks following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign as a result of their protest, Nov. 9, 2015, in Columbia, Mo.
Photo by Sarah Bell/Missourian/AP

Conservative backlash to Mizzou protests may backfire

“Disgusting.” “Infantile.” These are the words the 2016 Republican presidential contenders have used to describe the protest movement inspired by racial unrest on the campus of the University of Missouri. And although the movement has served as inspiration for students of color across the country to make their voices heard, conservatives appear to have seized on it for a different reason – to score political points.

The fallout from Mizzou became national news this week after the school’s sitting president, Tim Wolfe, resigned after widely publicized frustration with his handling of racial incidents on campus reached a boiling point. With the school’s football team threatening to strike and millions of dollars at risk, Wolfe stepped down and an African-American interim president was hired to take his place on Thursday.

Before the ink was even dry on stories of Wolfe’s departure, GOP front-runner Donald Trump was calling the school’s administrators “weak” and the student activists’ list of demands “crazy.” The rest of the GOP field followed suit, each trying to out-condemn the protesters, without acknowledging whether or not minority students had any legitimate concerns. Carly Fiorina argued that “political correctness” on college campuses was “choking candid conversations in this nation.” Chris Christie blamed the tensions on “lawlessness.” And, not to be outdone, Dr. Ben Carson lamented that “we’re being a little bit too tolerant” during an appearance on Fox News’ “The Kelly File.”

RELATED: #BlackOnCampus continues national discussion on race

Conservative media have also picked up the baton and run with it, stoking fears of violent upheaval and Democratic complacency in the face of impending disaster. Not unlike the conservative reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, the message was consistent and clear: this is a threat that needs to be quashed, not coddled.

The contrast with the Democratic response to Mizzou could not have been more stark. Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted that he was following the #BlackOnCampus conversation on social media, which emerged in the aftermath of the Mizzou uprising. And Hillary Clinton retweeted an aide’s message of solidarity with the protesters. Both candidates have also gone out of their way to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, something which has earned them derision from their Republican rivals but could pay huge dividends come next November.

Recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling from the last two months shows that the GOP primary electorate is 92% white, a dramatic 20% difference from the 2012 general election turnout. By vilifying black and brown student activists, the GOP contenders may be preaching to the choir now, but in a year’s time they may need to appeal to some of the very voters they’re critiquing currently. Their reaction also runs the risk of resurrecting fears that the GOP is becoming a demographically doomed party.

“It seems that anywhere in our public affairs, if a line seems to form that has black people on this side of it, and other people on the other side of it … Republican presidential candidates want you to know they’re on whatever side the black people aren’t on,” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell said on Thursday’s episode of “The Last Word.”

“If the party continues the way it’s going now it’s just going to be relegated to the dustbin of history,” added guest Bob Herbert.

Still, slamming Black Lives Matter has become routine talking point for Republicans, and polling has suggested that the movement’s tactics may not have helped their cause. However, efforts to conflate that movement, which was a reaction to alleged police violence against unarmed minorities, with student protests against racism on their campuses may backfire.

The Mizzou activists’ grievances are not based on allegations. A swastika smeared with human feces was discovered on campus and arrests have been made of whites making online threats against black students. The protests around the country in solidarity with the students at Mizzou are very real, too.

Whether these burgeoning activists will be able to keep their momentum going as election season kicks into high gear remains to be seen, but they have shown an ability to effect change, and they could be a thorn in the side of Republican candidates who seem so eager to antagonize them.