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Stand and deliver

HBCU professors in Virginia believe this election is unlike any of its predecessors, and here’s what they believe students and faculty alike can do other than vote.

In what they expect to be a remarkable election season, faculty at Virginia’s HBCUs see a political landscape without precedent.

“Regardless of what political power you display, whether you’re from the left or from the right, we can see that we’re living in very trying times,” said Olusoji Akomolafe, Chair of the Department of Political Science and Executive Director of African American Policy at Norfolk State University. “Politics has always been a bloodsport, but this is nothing like we’ve seen before.”

Olusoji Akomolafe

Hampton University political science professor Michael Davis believes the polarization of the major political parties is the biggest difference between this year’s election cycle and previous ones.

“There simply wasn’t the terror of the opposition that you see in 2020; there was no version of QAnon or other conspiracy theories in 2012, at least none that had mainstream legitimacy,” he said. “Arguably that’s the greatest single problem of the age of Trump — the polarized, vicious antipathy that was once the realm of outsiders is now inside the tent,” he said.

Though many Americans blame the current president for such polarization, Akomolafe believes that the problem extends much further. “It is actually not as much about politics because everybody would like to make this about the guy in the White House, when this is actually from a long time ago,” he said. In many ways, he believes the president is merely the current condition of the country at large.

“This is not about Donald Trump,” Akomolafe continued. “It’s about us and who we are. It just had to take somebody like this President to expose us to the rest of the world.”

Professors believe voting is imperative for every demographic. “It’s important because the age of the average college student means they’re going to live a long time with what’s coming,” Davis, the Hampton professor, said. “It’s important because Black students and other students of color are going to suffer particularly under a regime that flirts as openly with white supremacy as the current one does.”

Akomolafe also believes that HBCUs can do more to invest in the civic engagement of their students. “On an institutional level, we have been searching for better resources for our students. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t, even at a curriculum level, have civic engagement,” he said.

Akomolafe chastised HBCUs for not working civic engagement into their curriculum. “You go to every HBCU, you have a core, some people have two sections of American National Guard. Not only should students know about the political space, what they need more is how the political process functions with civic engagement,” Akomolafe said. “We don’t do that, and we are so silent when it comes to the political processes. Internships, volunteering for student organizations. These are things we pay lip service to.”

While Akomolafe says HBCUs have lacked institutional support for civic engagement among students, he sees a “silver lining” in how students have led movements on and off campus. “You see them on social media, they have students who are fellows and [organizers]. Unfortunately right now these students have a thankless job. So what we need to do is encourage those students, and give the organizations money,” Akomolafe said. Akomolafe’s guess is voting turnout will be greater among both Black students and citizens than 2018 and 2016. According to Virginia Public Media, Black citizens saw a 22% increase in the 2018 midterm elections, turning out at 56%.

“There is so much at stake right now, and I’m talking about our students here and African-Americans,” he said. “Now is it going to be much greater than what we had? No, we’re still going to be talking about a percentage that is smaller-based, but it’s going to be a little bit of an improvement compared to 2016,” Akomolafe said.

Dr. Davis believes COVID-19 will impact every demographic, but there is one aspect of voting that could be extremely problematic for student voters — doing so amid myriad other responsibilities.

“The biggest crisis is probably just the additional workload dumped on everyone by the need to balance home, school, family, and now voting,” Davis said. While this will be a difficult election year for every student, faculty member, and citizen in Virginia, professors believe that not only voting is important, but helping others vote is as well.

“Whether you embrace the dream of a John Lewis who became an active leader in one party as it became the party of civil rights, or whether you look practically at who’ll most benefit you as President — there’s only one thing you can do, and I think only one candidate you can vote for: but who I endorse isn’t what matters here,” Davis said. “What matters is that students go out and participate in the process.”

Davis continued, “The older generation has been convinced that young people are feckless and irresponsible. Prove the haters wrong, I say; get out there and matter.”

Next: Redistricting is one of the major issues Virginia voters will vote on this November. But what is it — and how does it affect you?