SOAS Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) students, from across three years, united to address race, ethnicity, and the role that power and privilege have had on the 2020 US elections. #USDecision2020 was truly a global initiative, with thirteen universities participating from across the world, including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, India and Australia. The panel itself, with Elle Brown, Hira Rahman, Toma Moran, Amara Shaker-Brown, Wonde Nevens and Tam Hau-yu, spanned the Atlantic and across multiple cities from London, to Washington to Los Angeles. It was testimony to the incredible work of the BBC production team to connect every participant, from their own homes, regardless of time and location, without sacrificing presentability and quality.
Taking place amid unprecedented societal strife globally, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the SOAS CISD panel provided a necessary narrative for this historic event. Key policy groupings considered included the Muslim Travel Ban, US relations with China and the legalisation of recreational drugs. What the panel emphasised as particularly poignant was the incredible political engagement and mobilisation carried out by American citizens of all backgrounds, particularly this year, and the importance of its continuation. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, there was an urgent understanding that this movement must continue for the voices for change to be heard and instilled. As panellist, Hau-Yu Tam, advocated: “You cannot wait for change.”
Tam reflected that while most elections around the world are in their own turn, routinely spoken of as being “the most consequential one yet”, the 2020 US Election was different – being widely seen as not only a referendum on the “soul of America”, but one where democracy, and even humanity, was on the ballot. It was dominated by the incumbent. Even people who are ordinarily depoliticised or apathetic, know what they feel about Trump. Most of us know people who embrace him and accept the ideologies he stands for. Those who objected to him did not necessarily do so in the spirit of rejecting the regressive values Trump represented. Focussing excessively on his draconian strongman qualities and authoritarian leadership style, often resulted in sidestepping the everyday work needed to undo structural racism and injustice.
The panel discussed how race, inequality and even COVID-19 were not top of the list of recovery priorities for polled Americans. At the top was the economy: despite the US government’s mishandling of COVID-19, the recession the US was plunged into because of it, and the disproportionate adverse impacts of the pandemic on racialised and marginalised communities, Trump and his party still enjoyed plenty of popular support. That 47.2% of Americans still voted to give the Republicans a second term told a tale of two countries.
Therefore, even with a decisive victory, altogether it was clear the depressingly vast scales of work which need to be developed on the ground right now, to repair and reorient society. Nuancing race conversations and nurturing intersectional grassroots organising was something the panel continually referred back to. To these points, it was highlighted that while Asian Americans are the fastest-growing community of eligible voters (according to Pew), they remained left off the agenda. It was important to discuss how younger voters skewed Democrat, while right-wing voting blocs among recently immigrated Chinese American communities were increasingly more organised. Furthermore, to juxtapose this, the National Committee of Asian American Republicans officially endorsed Biden, citing Trump’s stoking of Sinophobia as a major factor. This merited a whole other conversation, yet the acknowledgement of this absence was not widely forthcoming.
The panel acknowledged the diversity of imposed racialized categories, such as ‘Latino’, highlighting how immigrant Cuban Americans (as opposed to US-born Cuban Americans, who skewed Democrat) bucked the progressive voting trend by evincing broad support for Trump. All panellists also had to reflect on their own privilege. As much as this varied within the group, all had the ability to move in progressive bubbles where they could afford to debate these issues, whereas for many, to vote in the midst of a pandemic, they had to make unprecedented sacrifices of putting their lives or livelihoods on the line to cast their vote.
Furthermore, beyond the discussion itself, and the insight provided by our panellists, it was also interesting to experience such an event from behind the scenes. Although the current situation has seen us all being distanced from one another physically, the pandemic has allowed for people to find various ways to connect virtually, facilitating discussion and enhancing academic collaboration. Prior to the spread of COVID-19, a 24-hour livestream with participants from four different continents and thirteen universities would not have been a likely occurrence, due to the emphasis and preference placed on physical events, in addition to the financial commitments needed. However, due to digital platforms becoming the new normal in a post pandemic world, the resulting increase in the accessibility of events, and the opportunities attached are undeniably appreciated.
This was a truly collaborative project and brainchild of Prof Bela Arora from the University of South Wales and BBC Global Executive Producer Susanne Weber. The team would like to thank Dr J Simon Rofe, who encouraged us to fearlessly approach a very important, yet delicate subject matter, and the wonderfully talented SOAS Alumni Musa Bwanali who deployed her creative talents, making the segment visually unique, from conducting photoshoots of the panelists to helping create a viral promotional video. Also, a massive thank you to Zahraa Kapasi, the digital assistant, for ensuring everyone tuned in, and Aashika Doshi, the segment producer, for doing a fantastic job pitching and coordinating the whole enterprise. In such unprecedented times, it is vital to take a moment to maximise the opportunities we have in front of us. An idiosyncratic election brought a reason for SOAS students and alumni to work together on this very unique opportunity.
Quoting the late Congressman John Lewis, newly elected Vice-President Kamala Harris said: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act”, continuing to say that “it is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted… protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. There is joy in it and there is progress. Because we, the people, have the power to build a better future.”
This blog has been written by SOAS students Zahraa Kapasi, Hau-Yu Tam and Aashika Doshi.