Experts explore historical moment and election during equity roundtable

November 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In the third installment of the “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change” series of roundtable discussions on Nov. 4, experts from across Penn State explored the results and potential impacts of the recent U.S. presidential election, especially on communities of color, as well as the broader potential ramifications of the current historical and political moment.

The conversation – titled “The Day After: Assessing the Post-Election State of the Nation” – featured perspective and expertise from Michael Berkman, professor of political science and director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy; Candis Watts Smith, associate professor of African American studies and political science; Royel Johnson, assistant professor of education and African American studies; and University Ethics Officer Emme Devonish, all from Penn State.

Co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, the University’s Division for Development and Alumni Relations and WPSU, the event was co-moderated by Penn State Senior Faculty Mentors Jennifer Hamer and Keith Gilyard and featured audience questions and participation through a chatroom moderated by WPSU producer Will Price.

Hamer said she hoped the conversation could provide clarity and a sense of shared direction for audience members to move forward. “There is much work to be done to address the persistent social and political inequities that confront us as family members and friends, educators, community members and global citizens, and harm some demographics more than others,” Hamer said. “The presidential tug-of-war tells us we are a nation divided on a vision of who we are, what we want and need to be and how we get to a healthy shared destination.”

“A pivotal moment in history”

In delivering opening remarks, Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones said the nation stands at a “pivotal moment in history” and acknowledged long-standing issues including systemic racism and police violence, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He said “this year of historic challenges has laid bare the disparities” between more privileged and more marginalized communities, and he urged each member of the Penn State community to reflect on this moment and actively strive to create a better, more equitable world.

“I know that the presidential election alone, regardless of its outcome, cannot be about a return to the past,” Jones said. “We must self-assess and be better colleagues, neighbors, friends, communities and global citizens.”

Jones affirmed Penn State’s ongoing commitment to advancing social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion -- including through a full review of the student code of conduct; the work of the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety; and the work of the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color – and urged all Penn Staters to do the same. “We all can take active roles in creating a more equitable and inclusive Penn State,” Jones said.

Berkman offered perspective on the Nov. 3 presidential election and voting, stating that a less politically polarized nation might have approached voting during a pandemic as an “administrative problem” rather than a partisan one. He noted that President Donald Trump has disparaged the safety and legitimacy of mail-in ballots. Berkman said citizens should be vigilant in guarding against voter suppression tactics, which have been historically used to make it more difficult for Black people and communities of color to vote. He also said public health needs to be “depoliticized” in order to avoid more negative impacts from the pandemic.

Smith shared her expertise on shifting demographics in the United States, noting that “demographic shifts do not necessarily result in a shift in power, and could amplify inequality.” The American population is simultaneously getting older and becoming more diverse, with each successive generation being more diverse than its predecessor. However, she said that political powers often respond to changing demographics with tactics including institutional rule changes, court “packing” and gerrymandering. Smith encouraged all viewers to stay engaged with “the nitty gritty aspects of politics and how they can be used to produce undemocratic outcomes.”

She said many recent protests across the nation have been led by young people with “nonpartisan” attention to racial justice. “We will likely continue to see activism all over the country, because we have a great deal of inequality all over the country,” Smith said. She also encouraged viewers to be aware of what she described as a “pattern” in American history of making progress toward racial justice and then taking steps backward. She cited the Jim Crow period and voter suppression in minority communities as examples of this trend.

Johnson said the current political moment – including alleged acts of police violence, racially divisive speech from political leaders and the ongoing pandemic – has “exacerbated pre-existing inequalities that were stratified by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and other identities,” including in higher education. However, he said this moment also creates an opportunity for Penn State to “think about our role and responsibility not only as a flagship public land-grant institution, but also as a national leader, in mitigating these challenges we’re facing in higher education.”

Students of color are more likely to attend public schools with fewer resources and less funding than their peers, Johnson explained, which underprepares them for future academic success and contributes to lower rates of college enrollment and graduation. These existing challenges have been compounded by the pandemic, where underfunded schools have struggled to transition to remote learning and students have struggled with lack of access to technology and broadband internet. Johnson said research also shows that students of color in higher education often lack a sense of belonging at predominately white institutions. He urged universities and institutional leaders to reflect and make strides toward improving educational outcomes for underrepresented students.

Devonish said America has not seen this degree of unrest and calls for social change since the civil rights movement, and agreed that institutions of higher education have an important role to play in this moment. “Our country has made significant progress with respect to social justice since the 1960s and universities have always been at the forefront of political debate and political activism,” she said. “So it’s fitting that Penn State is continuing this tradition of open dialogue with the community in the spirit of fostering advancement toward increased racial equity and inclusion for the greater good.”

Questions from the audience

In response to an audience question about whether the Black community should speak with a collective voice, Smith noted that the African American community has historically voted in a particular way out of recognition that many members of their community face certain challenges, even if an individual isn’t facing those challenges directly themselves. She encouraged other Americans to consider this trend of “considering the whole” when making political decisions.

Another audience question raised concerns over the Electoral College and gerrymandering, and asked whether it was truly accurate to call America a democracy. “We are a deeply flawed democracy, but we are a democracy,” Berkman responded. He said that “there are degrees of democracy,” and noted that American democracy in particular has mechanisms designed to hinder majority control. He also noted that, despite flaws in the nation’s democracy, these flaws are still capable of being addressed, and encouraged all audience members to remain actively engaged with the democratic process.

Panelists also responded to questions about exit poll results, which Berkman recommended caution when reviewing; voting trends in minority and university communities, which reflect disruptions from the pandemic; and the importance of universities in creating an educated and well-informed electorate.

Devonish concluded the evening’s discussion by encouraging families of color to help their children pursue higher education. “You see a lot of brown faces on this discussion this evening. We are all educated -- we have done it. There is a lot of support here,” Devonish said. “There are a lot of people working for you to help support you, connect you with resources and get you through this. These are people who helped pave the way and mentored us, and there will be a lot more coming. You are welcome here.”

The first event of the “Toward Racial Equity” series was held on June 30, and featured Black members of University leadership exploring the experiences of people of color and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic communities at Penn State. During the second event in the roundtable series held on Sept. 8, Penn Staters of color shared their experiences with racism and bias as well as their visions for an ideal Penn State. The series can be viewed at

Last Updated November 09, 2020