There are a lot of good reasons to attend a Historical Black College and University, but I have to say avoiding racism is not one of them.
Yeah, I know that is not going to sit well with some of fellow HBCU alums (shout-out to Virginia Union University). But it is the truth.
Yet the myth of the HBCU as a safe haven persists.
This time, it is Jarrett Carter Sr., writer at HBCU Digest who in a piece entitled When White Privilege Empowers Black Protest, argues that the student protests, which are happening now at predominately white schools (PWI) including University of Missouri (Mizzou) whose president recently resigned amidst a student-led hunger strike and boycott, are just lulling Black people into a “false sense of victory.”
More specifically Carter writes:
“There’s a part of me that aches for brothers and sisters fighting for black occupancy in white psyche and spaces. I sincerely hurt for the students who were sold a false bill of goods about diversity, or who underestimated how much drunk white co-eds calling them ‘nigger’ or dressing in blackface hurts on a daily basis.
But the cynical part of me just wishes they would give up that fight, come home, and aid other brothers and sisters in a greater fight for community revitalization.
More than anything, I wish that our family at PWIs understood that their protesting only empowers the narrative of black dependency on white benevolence. In the civil rights tradition, we are asking for white governing boards and policy makers to intervene on our behalf for our safety and sanity. Without a plan for shared governance, campus oversight or cultural intervention, we’re asking mostly middle-aged white men to empathize with black student angst beyond the bad PR it creates on network news and in future student recruitment.”
Carter also notes the irony in Black students at PWIs denouncing their schools for not being diverse enough, when it is these institutions elite names and identities, which likely attracted them to there in the first place. He also points out that Black students at HBCUs have been protesting, particularly against the state, for years for fair and equal academic spaces. However those students and their actions don’t get the same media attention as their Black counterparts at public and Ivy league institutions whose protests benefit from White ally-ship.
He also adds:
“Is this the real world we so easily embrace in the name of diversity and inclusion? Should changing white minds and white hearts be a part of our coming of age as scholars and professionals? Is it our jobs to go into their campuses to emancipate them from their own racial insecurities?
Howard University students are protesting for better communication with university administration, and fixes to campus finances and facilities. Students at Yale, Michigan and UCLA are fighting for administration to respond to white classmates and their racially offensive Halloween costumes, and their propensity to intimidate through name calling and campus graffiti.
Which fight is worth more? To make black institutions and communities more sustainable and accountable? Or to make white institutions and students more covert with their racist power structures and belief systems?”
It is an interesting perspective, which I implore people to read in its entirety. I definitely get and appreciate Carter’s points about what protests and movements get to be the face of “race talk” here in America.
And there is no denying the importance of these institutions in our community. According to the Network Journal:
“HBCUs are responsible for 22 percent of current bachelor’s degrees granted to Blacks. Among Blacks, 40 percent of all congressmen, 12.5 percent of CEOs, 40 percent of engineers, 50 percent of professors at non-HBCUs, 50 percent of lawyers and 80 percent of judges are HBCU graduates.”
And according to the Washington Post:
“Of course, the majority of the nation’s tenured black faculty are at historically black colleges/universities (HBCUs). Most earned their doctoral or other terminal degrees at traditionally white institutions, but despite these credentials are not vigorously recruited or advanced into the ranks of tenured faculty in large numbers at TWIs. Remarkably, 96 percent of black tenured faculty are at HBCUs (even though HBCUs comprise only 3 percent of the nation’s 3000 colleges and universities). If HBCUs disappeared, so would most of the nation’s black academics.”
With that said, a part of me feels like Carter’s argument is based out of fear that the more these PWIs get their racial acts together, the less there will be a justified need for HBCUs. Admittedly, there have been times when I have had those fears too. But I also feel that if it happens, a part of the reason will center around our own failure to address our own oppression.
What I mean is that in addition to all of our greatness, Black colleges and universities have also been home to some pretty regressive practices and attitudes as well. Like Hampton University’s M.B.A program, which previously banned cornrows and dreadlocks for its male business students out of concern that the hairstyle wasn’t businesslike. Or at Lincoln University, where the president once advocated for modesty among women students as a deterrent to sexual assault. And then there is Morehouse College, which had instituted a dress code that banned students, including those who are trans and gender fluid, from wearing “women’s clothing.”
In fact, one could argue that many HBCUs were founded and continue to operate under obscurantist belief systems, which hinders Black liberation just as much as it does at PWIs. As noted in this essay, which was published in the 1997 edition of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, entitled The Tradition of White Presidents at Black Colleges:
“Founded in many cases by white and white-controlled foundations,the educational mission of a large number of historically black colleges and universities reflected the universal view prevailing in the nineteen century that Negros were a lesser breed possessed of inferior intelligence.”
Again, I am not trying to diminish both the value and importance of HBCUs. And quite frankly, I believe that we should invest more in our own institutions. Personally, what I most appreciated about my educational experience at an HBCU was that I got to learn and grow with other Black people.
But still I also recognize that even at an HBCU, much of our experiences were centered around Whiteness and White supremacy. Whether it be the exclusion or radical thoughts and groups (including Pan-African studies), the adherence to antiquated Christian values, which at some institutions is incorporated into the actual mission, or the oppression of our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ communities, the idea remained the same: to make ourselves more respectability and some ways submissive to the dominate culture.
The way I see it, we are asking Black students to choose between blatant racism and internalized racism. And whether you are a Black student protesting an all-White administration in Missouri or a Black student rallying against an all-Black administration down South, more than likely our individual battles are rooted in the same war to dismantle these beliefs that says we deserve to be treated differently and with inferiority because of the color of our skin.
If anything, this current student movement should present opportunities for Black students across the educational spectrum to unite and demand that they be respected and valued wherever they go to learn in this world. And this should also be a wakeup call to our institutions that if we are tired of our kids running away to PWIs, then we have to make sure our spaces are truly safe havens.