Voting Rights – HBCUs as Centers of Political Power

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HBCUs have always played a pivotal role in social justice issues, such as voting rights.

Xavier Buck, Ph.D.

In today’s climate, they are crucial to educating generations of new voters and serving as an information hub within the community. Journalist Kelly Wright, who moderated the panel, and three panelists discussed the vital role HBCU students have played and will need to play in ensuring voters can exercise their right to vote.  “To vote is the minimum thing you can do,” explained Dr. Jarvis Hall, political science professor at North Carolina Central University. “[Elected officials] count on you not participating.” HBCUs have been centers of political power for decades, and in turn, have been targets of political exclusion. Dr. Hall argued that HBCUs play a special role in raising student and community political consciousness, something Jayla Allen, a Prairie View A&M University alum and the lead plaintiff in a voter discrimination lawsuit in Waller County, TX, experienced herself.

Allen shared that “HBCUs have been centers of political activity and power for decades” and it didn’t start when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered. While civil rights activism has a long history on PVAMU’s campus, it took on new energy in 2015 after the death of Sandra Bland in police custody in 2015. Allen’s alma mater responded by renaming University Drive to “Sandra Bland Parkway” in her honor. Allen and her peers responded to the unjust loss of Black lives with political action:holding the police accountable and protesting voter restrictions. “Students were on the forefront of protests and challenging their government,” she said. She also pointed out that “those four years [of college] are critical:” referring to how HBCUs prepare their students to be politically active.

Adding to Allen’s experiences, I argued there has been no greater example recently of how student organizing has led to conservative backlash than at North Carolina A&T University, located in Greensboro, NC. In 2016, North Carolina legislators were forced to redraw congressional districts after they were deemed unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering. Legislators proposed splitting North Carolina A&T University’s campus into two districts that favored white, rural, and conservative constituents in areas adjacent to Greensboro, but students and Greensboro residents organized against these efforts, taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court and preventing Black voter dilution. In response to their organizing efforts, Republican legislators gerrymandered the entire city of Greensboro, a majority Democratic city, into a majority Republican, white and rural district just a few years later.

Dr. Hall described the practical impact of racial gerrymandering:, “Bad maps lead to bad politicians. Bad politicians lead to bad laws. Bad laws lead to a decrease in the quality of life for people.” Oftentimes the people affected by these “bad maps” are HBCU students and the communities surrounding their campuses . I added that the situation at NCAT mirrors tactics used by the carceral system. Prisons filled with Black, brown, and poor people are strategically built in rural districts, increasing their population without allowing prisoners to vote. This directly influences how congressional maps are drawn and gerrymandered. The carceral system also disenfranchises 5.2 million Americans who have completed their sentences and still have not had their vote restored.

When legislators discourage and limit Americans’ ability to participate in the political process, they exacerbate an already tense relationship between Black communities and their governments. Dr. Hall continued, “What [students] see is a political system that has failed them. A political system that is not serving their interests…You don’t blame the victims in a situation like that. You look at how you can change the system in order to make it more accountable, more responsive not only to students but to other groups in marginalized communities.” The conversation pivoted from problems to action as we offered suggestions on how to organize young people.

Dr. Hall suggested that we “demystify the beast” and teach our communities what the political process is so we are equipped to change legislation. Allen recognized that social media is very useful, but does not replace knocking on doors. She explained that social media grabs students’ attention and the incentives that can be used to sustain it. I reflected on my time listening to former members of the Black Panther Party, where the average member’s age was 19 when they handed out free breakfast, organized free medical clinics and schools, and created sickle cell research centers in cities across the country, among many other things. Every time they provided vital services to the community, they also offered political education so people could understand why resources were inequitably distributed and what they could do to collectively change their conditions. Part of “demystifying the beast” is organizing students around the issues that they care about, such as  student loan debt, and then engaging in incremental  political education  tied to various services.

All of the panelists felt a sense of urgency in light of the weakening of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the rise of outspoken racism in the political discourse , and the slew of voter restriction laws proposed in the past year. Despite the number of issues HBCU communities face, the speakers weren’t discouraged. Instead, we will continue to build power within HBCU communities by learning more about the issues HBCU students care about, educating HBCU students regarding the political process, and helping students organize themselves into even stronger political blocs. Allen pointed out  that “Something has to happen in between you getting registered to vote and then you voting. You have to be continuously engaged.” By the end of the panel, it was evident that was the void we have to strategically fill.