HBCUs and the Search for a More Perfect Union Among Black Folks

You can’t get away from the human condition, no matter how hard you try. And just because black folks are human and fallible, doesn’t mean that our intentions or institutions are worse than those protected and designed by white people. 

This is the unexamined nuance of the ‘HBCU v. PWI’ conversation that has exploded within the context of racial animosity on campuses all over the country. Black students everywhere, fed up with overt racist treatment from classmates, covert efforts to infuse respectability politics into campus diversity, and non-response from middle-aged white guys who run the schools, are crying out for justice. 

But in the midst of their cry, they are fighting fellow black students at HBCUs who, eloquently or otherwise, are criticizing the perceived original sin of choosing a PWI and ‘diversity’ over an HBCU and ‘nurturing.’ Some of the pro-PWI arguments have centered around having courage to confront racism in white spaces, the comparative lack of safe space for black LGBTQ students on HBCU campuses, and the divisive nature of playing ‘blame the victim’ for attending in the first place. 

Maybe it’s the passion and the anxiety of watching other black people confront racism in a perceived world of choice and alternative that makes some people overly critical. Maybe it is the outright crisis many HBCUs are facing because of dwindling enrollment numbers, particularly among college-ready black students, that has HBCU advocates attacking the players and not the elements of the game that we’re all playing. 

There is some legitimacy to the claim that in 2015, with racial tensions returning to Civil Rights-era threat levels, economic advancement largely stagnant for black people of all classes and geography, and violence against black psyche and bodies on the rise, that there would be a stronger call for black people to huddle up and to get our spiritual and intellectual capital back within our gates. It is not disrespectful for black folks to see other black folks in pain or trauma, and to say ‘get the hell outta there! Can’t you see that place is burning down all around you?” 

But more than the basic compulsion to protect those who look like us, we seem to be ignoring elements of today’s defined racial responsibility in order to preserve a warped sense of yesteryear’s marching, preaching, and mobilizing. Is it really our responsibility to bear the burden of diversity on PWI campuses, when white folks have always been welcomed to HBCUs? Do we still think it is our birthright to honor King by willfully throwing ourselves in the way of racial injustice in minimal numbers? 

If white folks don’t value HBCUs, and thereby don’t value diversity, why do we continue to value PWIs?

Isn’t it ironic that so many black students believe that their God-given obligation is to change white minds and hearts on racist culture and ideology on white campuses, when black people can’t convince these same black students to bring their pro-black culture and ideology to black campuses? Isn’t it interesting that we still view diversity as the right to infiltrate space, but not the duty to own space which we can allow to be infiltrated by others on our terms?

Isn’t it funny that we hold HBCUs, the majority of which were founded by black churches or white protestant abolitionists and today remain supported by the 21st century version of the same networks, to higher standards of inclusion and tolerance while other campuses with similar religious history remain quietly uncompromising in their acceptance of LGBTQ students of all races?

Isn’t it sad that HBCU supporters are divisive in our call for a return to black campuses, but that when HBCU students or our campuses are under attack, there are no hashtags or IG pictures being taken on PWI campuses in support of HBCU causes? What PWI Black student unions stood to #SaveSCSU? Which PWI students said #WeAreAllTxSU or #WeAreAllTennState?

How many PWI students in Maryland marched with HBCU students in Baltimore to compel a federal judge to dismantle the state’s ‘separate but equal’ system of higher ed for black and white students? Not many, if any. But HBCU advocates are the separatists?

Black folks have to be honest enough to admit we’ve gotten some things wrong on both sides of this debate. HBCUs have not been strategic about enrollment management, academic development, alumni relations or community outreach in the face of dwindling resources. As a result, many black students and their families consider HBCUs to be an inferior product. 

And in turn, many HBCU students and alums have falsely and unfairly labeled black students and grads from PWIs as sellouts, or non-caring about their culture – when in fact, the exact opposite is true. But black students and alums have given PWIs far too much credit for the false bill of goods concerning campus diversity, and far too much silence on the lack thereof. And for many HBCU advocates, it doesn’t appear that PWI students and grads are as passionate about preserving HBCUs, as we are about them being protected in dangerous space on white campuses. 

People are always going to have biases about race, gender, sexual preference, religion, class and political ideology – on every single campus. And on every campus, black or white, there is a lunatic fringe that is incapable of keeping their biases and prejudices out of the public sphere. HBCUs shouldn’t be held to a different standard of humanity because of the actions of our lunatic fringe, just because the campus is almost exclusively black. 

This buys into the ages-old white elitist ideology that only the most excellent and capable negroes deserve recognition and inclusion in society, while the rest are ignorant scourges on culture and resources. Black families, black churches, black fraternities and sororities, black businesses all have their flaws, but it doesn’t make those flaws uniquely black or uniquely unbearable or irreversible. 

The conversation we must have now is if all of those truths, and all of the myths we’ve built up over the years about ourselves and our schools, can somehow coexist to create a more perfect solution for racial unity amongst ourselves. By the looks of things, we are still generations from achieving parity at predominantly white institutions without some level of fight. Most of that fight is in realizing that black PWI students and alumni aren’t changing their minds about their colleges choices anytime soon, and neither will HBCU supporters.

But we do need to make up our minds on the next round of this same family feud, and that is to decide if our energy, money and minds are better off together or fractured among racial lines. If we’re to be together, are we better off all trying to go to HBCUs, or all trying to go to PWIs – if for no other reason, than to increase numbers for protection, advocacy and economies of influence on one campus or the other. 

In the battle to change minds, are we better off working to convince white folks to let us in and to respect us, or to convince each other to stay home and grow our collective power as a community?

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