Digesting the election results Nov. 9 was rough on any individual, until we resumed speaking to one another. Carolyn Byerly recounts the somewhat uplifting response on her urban, black HBCU campus, Howard University, where the tradition of permanent resistance goes deep.
The Washington Socialist <> December 2016
By Carolyn M. Byerly
I awoke around 4:30 on Wednesday morning to the realization that Trump had won the election by 6 electoral votes. Heaviness rolled in and sat on my head and heart. Thinking and feeling would be hard that day.
Intellectual labor has always been my refuge, a safe world with its own satisfactions. In spite of fiscal and other challenges, the Howard University campus, where I have taught for 13 years, has been a community where I’ve found that refuge. The campus also knows how to share good times and bad. Faculty and students rocked together when Obama was elected. It was wonderful. How would we respond to a Trump presidency?
Somber faces stalked the hallways that morning and a few muttered shock and despair over the election. I mostly avoided conversation. But, after a late morning committee meeting, a German colleague and I commiserated. He remembered that Hitler had come to power promising to use the tools of democracy to destroy democracy, and warned those who laughed at him before his election would not laugh after it. It sounded eerily familiar. The colleague and I confessed that we feared Trump could accomplish the same here – in fact, we had witnessed his ascent these last months, using similar rhetoric to whip up crowds and expand his following. Like Hitler, Trump had now been elected through a democratic process. The Hitler specter of nearly a century ago seemed to haunt us both. We parted on a low note.
Minutes later, I spotted one of my graduate students headed to a post-election panel at Cramton Auditorium. She said some of our campus political activists would be speaking. It sounded like a good antidote to grief.
Panelists’ wisdom for the occasion
Cramton was filled mostly with students, but there was a shared sense across the generations that we all needed to make sense of the senseless, to find a way out of the pall cast over us by the election. To my surprise, the German colleague I’d spoken to earlier also appeared. We sat together and listened.
Among the five speakers were Dr. Greg Carr, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department; Dr. Clarence Lusane, chair of the Political Science Department; and Dr. Elsie Scott, Director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center. Together, they brought Howard's black radical tradition to light in the next hour, articulating the historical, political and practical analyses that would move me (and hopefully others) to a different understanding of the Trump phenomenon.
Their comments noted that:
-This election was a triumph of white nationalism, and a rejection of multicultural advances of several decades;
- We should remember that we have been here more than once – white political power exercised itself after reconstruction, when Reagan was elected, and now again;
-What happened on November 8 was predictable -- after Obama was first elected, white Republicans got organized and began to take over state-level offices and legislatures around the country. That required them to organize white voters in a new way, aiming to build local and state bases. It worked. That's the explanation for how traditionally progressive states like Wisconsin turned to the right.
-Voters were accepting of Trump’s misogynistic, coarse language because they watch reality TV where these kinds of things are said all the time;
- Hillary's campaign slogan 'I'm with her!' contained no vision, no imagination. Trump's 'Make America great again!' gave people hope for the future, especially those who felt left out. It also rallied xenophobia and white nationalist tendencies (especially among white men).
-Hillary’s concession speech was pathetic -- instead of talking about conciliation and working together, she should have said, 'Hell no, we aren't conceding anything, we're going to organize and take back our country!'
Speakers told Black students (and faculty) to get mad and organize to elect people in local and state offices. The midterm elections, when a third of Congressional seats will be on the ballot, represents a key moment for political engagement. Speakers recognized the despair that was circulating in the black electorate but said that had to give way to action.
Some positive thoughts emerged, too, when the audience was urged to:
-Look to the successes of election night. As the Black Lives Matter movement has adopted a better defined political agenda, this has resulted in electoral outcomes. Black prosecutors were elected November 8 in Chicago and in other communities where black unarmed men had been killed by police (e.g., the jurisdiction in Florida where Trayvon Martin was killed). Kamala Harris, California attorney general, became the second black woman elected to the US Senate;
-Consider the media’s major role in this election – reporters missed most of the big stories and focused on circus and drama, especially Trump’s antics. Essentially, the news media promoted his candidacy. Speakers urged the audience to understand how media conglomeration works to censor information and allow this to happen. [NB: Six media conglomerates – i.e., “big business” – today own 90% of media industries. In news, this has resulted in a shift to celebrity and entertainment-oriented reporting, less attention to public affairs, and increased conservatism in editorial content.]
Speakers provided a road map for action, which included:
-Using social media for INFORMATION, not AFFIRMATION – the point was made that most of us seek out social media that aligns with our own values and opinions. We need to seek out other points of view and, most especially, try to expand our knowledge of electoral politics and current events and issues;
-Bringing civics back to junior high school – speakers lamented the elimination of civics courses and emphasized the critical importance of teaching young people to understand how government is structured and operates if they are to be political participants;
-Finding common ground and building political bridges with groups of people who feel left out and on the margins. Begin by listening to more than just each other.
Since the panel
In the last days, Dr. Greg Carr has followed up with a series of messages on Twitter, saying, for instance, that:
-“Donald #Trump would have been nothing to our Ancestors and he should be nothing to us. Our future is in our hands. Time to rise. Get up.”
-“Not 72 hours into the ride and the #GOP 's #Trumpenstein already lurching unpredictably. "Not totally repealing #Obamacare ?" Of course.”
-“Maybe now more American Negroes will turn off the reality TV, store the video games, connect with each other, study & build for our future.”
Post-election personal thoughts
The shock and awe of the Trump election linger uneasily as I imagine my own political engagement. The challenge is not a small one, as my academic work is consuming both in the time and energy required to cope with diminishing budgets and increased responsibilities. Though a department chair, I have not had an administrative assistant since April 2015, something that means my workload includes substantial amounts of clerical work in addition to leadership, administration, teaching (one course per semester) and an active research program. I received permission a few months ago to hire a part-time assistant, but now that has been taken away with another 4% cut for all departments.
In its quest to shift to a primarily research-based institution, the university recently determined that graduate programs (such as the one that I chair) should double the number of graduate students but is offering no increased faculty, graduate assistantships (to help in recruitment), administrative support, or other resources needed to make this happen. One might try to explain these difficulties within the political-economy of higher education today but this particular historically black institution is something of an anomaly.
Congress created Howard in 1867, after the Civil War, to educate and advance those of African descent. (Congress created only one other school – Gallaudet, also in DC.) Howard is one of 105 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) today but the only one that receives a congressional allotment. That allotment, which supplements revenues from tuition and research grants, has flattened out in recent years, and a couple of years ago, when the Republican-led Congress’s sequestered funds for many months, Howard’s already fragile economic status was thrown into crisis. The central administration laid off staff at alarming rates, for example, reducing the facilities maintenance employees from 64 to 8 in a single year. The use of adjuncts to teach undergraduate classes also diminished, that being one factor in the successful move by the SEIU to unionize Howard’s (and other DC-area campuses’) part-time faculty.
Remaining faculty and department chairs’ workloads have expanded in the process. In listening to the panel’s call to action on post-election day, I was undoubtedly not alone in wondering how those working in the Howard system would find time. This author is trying to work out a plan as she writes.
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