Two hours before the sixth Republican primary debate Wednesday, about 60 students gathered in Hatcher Graduate Library to explore the role of race in elections.
The panel came as part of the annual U-M Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium — a platform for students to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., and through his legacy converse about the state of racial justice on campus and nationwide.
A panel of five, including Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor and Matthew Countryman, associate professor of history and American culture, led a conversation on increasing minority influence in the political arena. The panelists identified systematic aspects of America’s political system that disadvantage people of color, including voter suppression tactics and current political rhetoric.
Panelist Wendy Cortes, a social work student, touched on low voting rates in response to a question surrounding a study that revealed 75 million members of the American electorate did not vote in 2014.
“I think the reason that some of these peoples are not voting is because of voting suppression tactics that have historically silenced the minority community,” Cortes said. “Too many candidates are out there speaking to garner votes, to get their quotas, to get their numbers from minority communities or underrepresented individuals, but then are not taking time to understand what are their plights.”
The panelists also sought solutions to strengthen minority voices in the United States.
Taylor stressed the importance of voter turnout at every election, pointing to the 2010 Republican takeover of the state legislature. He fervently suggested that Americans work to bring people of color back to the voting booths in order to elect candidates who will bring minority desires to fruition.
“Voting is both a means for empowerment and an expression of empowerment,” Taylor said. “To the extent that these groups feel and experience a lack of power within society, I think that relates to a lack of confidence in the efficacy of the political system. We have to work on all fronts to fully and completely bring these groups into society in a meaningful way.”
Panelists, such as Rackham Ph.D. candidate Austin McCoy, also spent chunks of time discussing voter disenfranchisement. Each speaker touched on voter ID laws and closed registration booths. Public Policy junior Swathi Shanmugasundaram, CSG representative and panelist, spoke about modern voter suppression tactics.
“Because of gerrymandering and redlining, we are putting all these minority populations into such a small, densely populated area under the guides that they will be represented, but they get a very small proportion of the larger scale of representatives,” Shanmugasundaram said. “It just doesn’t work out.”
When asked who each panelist believes the next president will be, all but Mayor Taylor, who answered “Hillary," pointed to Bernie Sanders or skirted the question. Regardless of candidate choice, each panelist pushed for students and young people to put pressure on all candidates to see and act on the fact that, as Prof. Countryman stated, “this is no longer a white nation.”
LSA sophomore Shavon Edwards, who attended the event, said she enjoyed the discussion.
“I’m happy with the conversation,” Edwards said. “I think it is really important that students get a viewpoint from the mayor. I really think that the points the panelists talked about are important for students to hear.”
Symposium events in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. will continue throughout January.