For a year, I’ve tried to use this column to explain President Donald Trump’s administration. While all of its failures certainly can’t be condensed into a few sentences, a few things stand out: the devastation COVID-19 has wreaked on our nation, the disappearance of truth and integrity within the White House, and the blatant racism and denial of its existence.
The day Trump became president in 2016 wasn’t the first time I felt othered. But it was the first time I felt like I didn’t belong in my own country. It felt unreal. Desperate for optimism, I tried to cheer up those around me, including my history teacher, with my endless faith in the power of grassroots organizing to create change. All my melancholic teacher could say was that a Trump presidency scared him because of what it would mean for students of color like me.
I realized then that the color of my skin would soon make me more of a target than ever before, that this administration and his base would consider me inherently “less than.” Every day since Trump’s victory in 2016, his occupation of the White House has made me feel demeaned, degraded and dehumanized. I’m not sure how to deal with the uncertainty of these next four years.
What I do know is that we can’t rely on establishment figures to save us. This election will not define these next four years. The root of change has always been, and will always be, grassroots movements and activist efforts.
Over the summer, the U.S. saw a massive upwelling of anti-racist activism. Infographics flooded our social media feeds, and people were mobilized to learn about systemic racism, police brutality and a myriad of other social issues. Faced with problems that we should have solved generations ago, people finally wanted to act. We need that drive now more than ever.
No matter who wins the White House in the next few days, we can still effect change from the ground up. We must shift our focus from the presidency to local elections and community efforts. Due to widespread voter suppression, U.S. voter turnout lags other democracies, but it’s even worse in down-ballot races. While only about 55% of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, only 27% voted in local elections that year. At Emory, voter turnout was even more concerning: only 41% of main campus students voted in the 2018 midterm election. At Oxford, that number goes down to 28%. We can’t just show up to vote when there’s a presidential election on the line; midterm elections and local elections are equally important.
In fact, your individual vote is arguably even more vital in local elections, in which only a handful of ballots select the people directly impacting you. Through those contests, we can transform our communities no matter who is in the White House. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time: states began to secure marriage equality for LGBTQ+ individuals well before the Supreme Court legalized it nationwide. At the same time, local governments can deny us our fundamental rights; despite the Supreme Court’s decisions to the contrary, states such as Alabama and Georgia have made it nearly impossible for women to access abortion safely. To secure our fundamental rights, we must continue our drive toward change by voting in local elections. We can ensure access to abortion, push for changes in policing and revitalize schools in our communities.
To prioritize national elections over local ones would be to promote politics over passion, symbols over communities, performance over justice. While we might not always be able to sway the White House or the Supreme Court, we can still determine who represents us in Congress, statehouses and city councils. That’s how we create change in our communities from the ground up.
Right now, the future may seem hopeless. But whoever takes control of the White House, we don’t need them to enact change. If you’ve spent the past few months attending protests, signing petitions, registering people to vote or volunteering for grassroots organizations, don’t give up. We survived these four years, and we will persevere through these next four. The future may be bleak, but activism and grassroots efforts will lead us through.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) is from Las Vegas.