The first time I heard Southern University System President Ron Mason discuss his ‘Five Fifths Agenda for America’ was at the National HBCU Conference in Washington D.C. in 2011. He told a packed conference room that America has benefited over generations from the labor and cultural suppression of enslaved and incarcerated black men, and that there was a legitimate way that HBCUs could introduce and lead a new era of opportunity for Black men.
The idea was genius, and I eagerly awaited for a way that I, and all historically black colleges, could implement its vision.
Now the idea has made it from conference discussion and board room banter into the national spotlight. Renowned HBCU researcher Marybeth Gasman recently profiled Mason and the Agenda in the Huffington Post, setting the stage for a substantive discussion on how and why Black men deserve better treatment and recognition in American culture, and how HBCUs can force the issue.
This effort is a national agenda to reclaim and develop Black male human capital that has four goals. First, Mason wants to increase the number of Black males with bachelor degrees. Next, he wants to increase the number of Black male teachers and graduates in the sciences. Then, he wants the nation’s Black colleges to serve as institutional homes for long-term systemic change for America. And, lastly, he wants to facilitate a truthful, national conversation about the relationship between Black men and America. He plans to meet this last goal by focusing on research as well as advocacy.
Louisiana is an ideal place for this kind of idea to launch. It has the involved Black legislative leadership, alumni base, and ideal HBCU leadership to offer outspoken and consistent focus on how to heal Black men through education and social reconstruction. But the idea, to work in its most efficient and effective form, will have to find nearly universal support from HBCU culture. And while there are plenty of presidents who would privately go to bat to save Black men by meeting them where they are, are there enough leaders to make this concept nationally relevant and viable through the offering of their institutions?
Try to envision most HBCUs making the investment in admissions and recruitment to uncover the ‘hidden stars;’ Black men who don’t have the test scores or grades to qualify for regular admission, but have demonstrated a talent and character indicating a solid probability of college completion and life success. Many HBCUs have a hard enough time processing regular applications and managing TRIO and college prep programs for success outcomes. Mason’s program, while needed and structurally feasible, would be hard to sell to those black colleges just trying to stabilize enrollment from year to year.
Mason gets that, and admits as much.
Of course, Mason recognizes the obstacles that HBCUs face as well, noting that the “the challenge with HBCUs is that they are an institutional reflection of the people they primarily serve, poor and Black with lack of access to wealth and the means to generate it.” Mason sees HBCUs embracing the Five Fifths Agenda for America resulting in increased recognition of the value of these institutions.
But more than the question of structure and economics for HBCUs to find the Black men it usually passes over with common admissions requirements, is the notion that most HBCU leaders are as bold as Mason to publicly admit that America has intentionally branded failure and mediocrity into the DNA of its Black male citizens from birth, as far back as slavery. Can you name five HBCU leaders willing to speak the truth about one of the world’s greatest crimes against culture and humanity, with corporate and federal funding tied to their ability to talk and walk the figurative fence between militancy and assimilation?
Outside of Mason, I can think of no more than five – and I shudder to publish their names for fear that my words may jeopardize their vision and opportunities for students at their campuses outside of the Five Fifths Agenda. Even worse, for the five presidents that would seriously contemplate standing up for this idea, there’s double that number who sit in regular fear of upsetting predominantly white legislators, foundation leaders and alumni who anxiously wait for the days when Black folks can “get over the race thing.”
Mason’s idea is the revolution many Black folks have waited for. Raising up a new generation of Black men through education and opportunity is what the race has always needed, but has struggled to collectively develop and implement. We’ve seen it in pockets – Black Male Initiatives, mentoring programs, Title III projects aimed at Black male achievement, etc. Mason’s plan involves a commitment from Black America and from government and supporters beyond the HBCU village.
But if our village isn’t quite ready or doesn’t know how to embrace it, how will we ever see its potential beyond our own gates?