College Students’ Racialized Political Efficacy and the Trump Presidency

By Dr. Sy Stokes

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Immigration, Voter Suppression, and Political Engagement in the 2020 Election

“I think that one thing that keeps me going is knowing that there is the possibility for us to create our own ‘us,’ as in people who want to kind of dismantle the current institutions in place. There’s the possibility for us to organize our own institutions that service our own people with our best interest — intentions at heart…seeing the potential and the drive, and people who are so deeply invested in this struggle keeps me motivated.” — Esme, 4th year Chicanx students

Esme participated in a focus group I conducted about the campus racial climate during the Trump presidency. Several students expressed how they have been targeted by Trump’s rhetoric and executive decision-making, which served as motivation to engage with sociopolitical issues. While researchers may categorize her response as something resembling “political efficacy,” Esme alluded to something far more complex. Within her response exists a vision that transcends the realm of politics, and a motivation that is derived from a collective “us.” I would argue that labeling her statement as an example of political efficacy deviates from her vision, as the true catalyst of her ambitious imagination lies in her racial identity.

How Political Efficacy is Racialized and Why that Matters

Elizabeth Beaumont consolidates the theoretical underpinnings of political efficacy research into three categories: political autonomy, political courage, and democratic experience. Researchers have also separated political efficacy into two different categories: internal — one’s belief in their ability to participate in politics — and external — one’s belief that political leaders and government institutions are responsive to the demands of the general citizenry. Experts in the field caution that we should not conflate low levels of external political efficacy with a lack of action (political courage), since a distrust in political leadership does not necessarily dissuade political engagement entirely. Stephen Quaye emphasizes that students can still possess what Paulo Freire calls critical hope — a shared purpose derived from the understanding that structural forms of oppression can be combatted through global solidarity. Although race has been treated as an important variable within existing scholarship, the current sociopolitical circumstances demand that we higher education professionals and faculty engage in a more concerted analysis of how race intersects with political efficacy.

Political efficacy cannot be conceptualized without an assessment of power, and power cannot be conceptualized without an assessment of race. For example, Beaumont positions race as an influence of political efficacy, along with a variety of other variables including socioeconomic status, gender, political knowledge, and education. However, this ignores how socioeconomic status is a racialized construct (racial capitalism), gender is a racialized construct (intersectionality), political knowledge is a racialized construct (what is legitimized as knowledge), and education is a racialized construct (discriminatory education policy). Race is more than just an influence of political efficacy; it dictates political efficacy.

Thus, a specific focus on race presents important questions for those engaging with this work. In terms of external political efficacy, who qualifies as the “general citizenry”? In regard to internal political efficacy, why is it assumed that one’s engagement with politics is a byproduct of one’s belief in the political system at all? Are either required to create systemic change?

Within the context of a white-dominated U.S. political infrastructure, political efficacy is traditionally contingent upon a set of privileges that allow a person to believe that political constituents will serve their interests if they choose to participate. The ability to possess political efficacy is therefore entirely a racialized construct since the only people who have always been considered a part of the “general citizenry,” and have never been excluded from U.S. politics, are white people. For people of color, and students of color specifically, an investment in external political efficacy has yielded relatively minimal progress. Thus, it would be irresponsible to equate a white student’s political efficacy with a student of color’s, even in regard to the terminology we use. The former has the perspective of power, while the latter has the perspective of the oppressed.

Cultivating Racial Efficacy and the Liberatory Imagination

What has become clear is that we need to invest in the racial efficacy of our students of color. Racial efficacy situates one’s experiences with race and racism as the catalyst for political participation, autonomy, and courage. It gives one’s racial identity the credit that it is due — my Blackness is the root of motivation, my Blackness is the root of my autonomy, and my Blackness is the root of my courage, not my belief in politics or politicians. But without a belief in politics, how is it possible to change it?

The history of my enslaved ancestors, for example, was not dictated by their levels of political efficacy. Their efforts to change their condition were not motivated by their belief in politics or politicians; they were motivated by their belief that they could one day become free. Their idea of freedom could not be realized by a U.S. political system, so working within it would be a futile matter. Instead, they invested in themselves, regardless of whether politics would follow suit. Their vision of freedom was not limited by a political imagination, they were driven by a liberatory imagination. In other words, we did not get here because we believed in the efficacy of politics, we got here because we believed in the efficacy of ourselves. Sociopolitical gains have always been an atypical side effect to the collective solidarity we were already cultivating outside of the realm of the political apparatus.

This is particularly important in today’s political climate. If Trump can successfully implement policies that separate children from their families, persecute entire religious communities, penalize poor people, and reinforce white supremacist ideologies in education, it is clear that one’s belief in politics cannot dismantle our current system. I would argue that it is more pragmatically and psychologically beneficial to invest in ourselves. If sociopolitical progress occurs in the process, we will gladly welcome it. But we cannot become dependent upon this historically infrequent possibility, as these possibilities are restricted to what a white supremacist political system can provide. We have to take the lead from our ancestors and understand that no one will save us but ourselves, and for all people of color, our respective histories have shown us that it is possible.

Many students of color do not believe that our current political system can produce what is necessary for their liberation, and we do not need to convince them that it can. Our focus needs to be toward cultivating racial efficacy amongst students of color on our campuses and to show them that even when they are excluded from politics, they will never be excluded from their community. While engaging in democracy may be perceived as more important, it is our belief in one other that got us this far.

So what does it look like for higher education professionals and faculty to cultivate racial efficacy on college campuses? First, if we want to demonstrate to our students of color that they can create systemic change, we cannot simply tell them to “vote.” Instead, we have to expose them to their own history of resistance — the revolutions, the rebellions, and the moments of collective unity that transformed our society — which will allow them to envision a world outside of what is on the ballot. Esme, for example, understood that there is a “possibility for us to create our own ‘us,’ as in people who want to kind of dismantle the current institutions in place.” By collectively creating their own institutions that serve the specific needs of their community, the dependence on a white political infrastructure is alleviated, subsequently leading to its demise. She is able to believe in this vision because of her Chicanx history and because of her Chicanx identity, regardless of what is occurring in the political realm.

Second, you cannot solely invest in the compositional diversity of your institution. Even if the percentage of students of color increases, this does not mean your job is done. From the moment they step on campus, higher education leaders must make a concerted effort to connect students to various cultural organizations on campus and connect those organizations to one another. If you do not have any such organizations for students on your campus, help create them. Although students have proven they are capable, the burden of this labor cannot solely be placed on them. Racial equity work is difficult, and the only reason it may not seem as such is that students of color have been doing your job for you for far too long.

Finally, the Trump administration has placed higher education institutions in a partisan dilemma. Higher education leaders feel as though any criticism of Trump’s racism would ostracize students on their campus who support him. However, you must understand that racism is a non-partisan issue, and to ignore racism and even removing efforts to educate and combat a system of oppression just because it is linked to a particular party’s candidate is to support its continued existence. If you want to help nurture the racial efficacy of your students of color, you have to demonstrate that you are willing to protect them. Unlike our President, you must condemn white supremacy and racism in every form imaginable. More importantly, however, your condemnation must be backed by action.

To invest in the racial efficacy of students of color is to provide them with the tools to envision new possibilities outside of what our political system can provide. Students of color who have lived through the Trump presidency have found hope, not within politics, but amongst themselves. They want to build a new world, and campus leaders have the resources to help their vision come to fruition.

Sy Stokes is a postdoctoral fellow for the National Center for Institutional Diversity. His primary research is focused on campus racial climate during the Trump presidency. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a BA in African American studies, earned his master’s degree in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, and recently earned his PhD in education at the University of Southern California. For the past seven years, he has traveled the nation performing his spoken word poetry that touches on various topics including social justice, student activism, race and racism, education, love, family, and mental health. In addition to his creative repertoire, he also facilitates race and equity training for administrators and staff working in professional organizations, colleges, and universities, and local school districts.



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