Last month, dozens of presidents and chancellors from historically black colleges and universities assembled in the White House to meet with President Donald Trump and key members of his executive cabinet and from Congress. Talking points surrounding the meeting, particularly from black media, took issue with executives meeting with the president whom many fear uses fear and xenophobia for political currency, and who spent it liberally during the presidential campaign season and the early weeks of his presidency.
But a strange thing happened today in this anti-Trump, pro-black context. A group of HBCU students, federally designated HBCU All-Stars to be exact, met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. There were no angry tweets, no cameras, and no controversy surrounding the meeting, just one tweet from one reporter who took more issue with the scheduling typo than a perceived cultural clash.
DeVos to meet w/ HBCU All-Stars cohort on Wednesday: pic.twitter.com/A7O9ssevXy
— adam harris (@AdamHSays) April 17, 2017
This meeting follows up the announcement that the application period for the HBCU All-Stars program has opened. If previous years are any indication, thousands of students will apply, dozens of students will be accepted, and they’ll be the next cohort of undergraduate and graduate students proudly proclaiming themselves federally ordained ambassadors of HBCU culture.
— White House HBCUs (@WHI_HBCUs) April 6, 2017
The question is not if they have the right to do that, but rather if we’ll be hypocritically silent about their participation. After all, when HBCU presidents traveled to Washington in the name of institutional advocacy, they were blasted. On the low-end of our criticism, we deemed them misguided executives with more money woes than common sense about President Trump’s willingness to help our schools.
On the high-end, they were viewed as sophisticated race traitors, carefully using the opportunity as a convenient tool for a historic photo opportunity for a president for which none of “us” voted.
If we’re honest with ourselves and about the state of our schools, we’ll recognize that our silence on the HBCU All-Stars program and the students who take part in it is the worst kind of HBCU hypocrisy. HBCU hypocrisy comes in many forms – people who go to the CIAA tournament and never buy a ticket to watch a game; students who claim to love their HBCUs but complain about infrastructural issues on social media; alumni who claim HBCU love but if they give money at all, are quicker to support struggling athletics instead of institutional endowments; presidents who believe white lawmakers, PR firms, consultants and Ivy League professors about how to manage HBCU operations; boards who believe that politics will never destroy a school.
These examples can’t touch the hypocrisy of criticizing HBCU presidents for advocating for these schools while sending our children and emerging scholars to Washington to do the same. If we are genuine about our disdain for the Trump Administration and our distrust in its policy making, we would discourage our students from applying to a program created under the Obama Administration and maintained under President Trump, who preserved Pell Grant and most other federal funding programs critical to HBCU solvency, but has proposed cutting billions from federal work study and transitional enrollment programs.
We would call those same black media to which we cried about our presidents meeting in D.C. in the name of institutional preservation, and scream that the headline should read “No More HBCU Photo Opps.” Let’s be honest; the All-Stars program, even under President Obama, was little more than a production of the White House Initiative on HBCUs to highlight social, academic and service excellence among students at black colleges; our ambassadors are never asked for policy recommendations, never briefed on forthcoming policy execution, never solicited for ways the federal government can use its resources to improve the HBCU experience, and never actually meet the president.
Students get to boost their resumes with a line about being a federal student ambassador, and the White House gets to claim support for HBCUs. It is, has been, and always will be a mutually beneficial, year-long photo opportunity that we have always celebrated and never questioned as a paper tiger in the deep jungle of HBCU advocacy.
That same jungle we deemed to be culturally, political and racially uninhabitable for our presidents is just fine for our students. And as they were under the Obama Administration, they’ll likely be encouraged and celebrated for doing it under President Trump. We embarrassed our institutional leaders but will lift up our young scholars for meeting with the same president’s team with the same view of HBCU advocacy, the same staff and the same money on reserve as he had a month ago.
It’s okay to be hypocritical and black; every person and every situation deserves its own thoughtful approach and context. But on this we should want to be more consistent. Grown men and women who know what the budgets look like were raked over the proverbial coals for meeting with President Trump in the name of Black/HBCU pride. Apparently, our students deserve either the same criticism or better guidance in being smarter than our presidents were in March.
Or, a third option – we owe our HBCU presidents an apology and a pledge of more support and less hypocrisy from all of us.