When White Privilege Empowers Black Protest

I’ve given up on the weary argument that black students should be encouraged to attend historically black colleges, because every time it is sparked on social media by black PWI students who degrade HBCU value, or black HBCU students who degrade the cultural loyalty of black PWI students, we all eventually do-si-do back to one inalienable truth; all black folks should have the right to choose the culture, the financial aid packages and the academic opportunities which best suits us. 

But what happens when all of those things can’t silence racism? What happens when the New York Times profiles all of the ongoing racial animosity swelling at state and Ivy League white schools within the last week, last year, last 10 years? 

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.

Behind every little small victory, like a campus president’s resignationwe’re being lulled into a false sense of racial victory. Tomorrow, Missouri could put in a new president, black or white, male or female, whose sole presence will be to make black students feel heard in the moment, but not supported in the long run. 

The truth is that the University of Missouri, Yale, UCLA, and every other PWI with racial problems today was never built to accommodate racial diversity. From its leadership, to its programs, to its recruiting and marketing, there are few elements outside of black student unions which are exclusively created, staffed, strategically developed and cultured to welcome and embrace black students, or any racial minorities. And we falsely think that because civil rights is the law of the land, that it also should be or could be the law of the mind and heart for predominantly white campus culture everywhere.

The fact that we are receiving national attention for mobilizing against anti-black behavior and leadership at Mizzou and other PWIs is not because of our numbers, or because we have groundbreaking perspectives on race relations and tolerance. It is because we happen to be black students decrying racism on white campuses. 

The media, the thousands of white alumni nationwide who support these schools – they could care less that five-to-15-percent of the student population isn’t being treated fairly. What attracts their attention is the name ‘UCLA,’ or ‘Michigan’ or ‘Yale’ being included in the same headline with the word ‘racism.’ 

Black students at PWIs have the privilege of white classmates joining them in public square protests, which in the eyes of media and white liberal idealists, further humanizes the case for racial equality. Black bodies crying out for respect and preservation are one thing, but when white bodies align with the cause, it becomes part of a collective dialog among a broader range of people.

It’s easy to make this case because HBCU students and alumni have been protesting for years, with little to no coverage in mass media. South Carolina State University had thousands protesting a legislative threat to close the school, and didn’t get as much regional attention as one brother who went on an eight-day hunger strike at Missouri. 

The privilege of being a Missouri student, even in the midst of inflamed emotions around racial tolerance on the campus, have made him a household name. And it all comes full circle, because it’s this exact privilege that makes black students choose PWIs. The allure of attending a PWI is sold to black students and families as a ticket into an easier time of finding a higher paying job, and a more comfortable transition into working with white people in the ‘real world.’

And that’s cool, until you find out that in college, racist white students feel empowered to say and do just about anything with racist undertones as a joke or venting of racial frustration – especially on their own turf in their own communities. Just wait until these same white students graduate and 10 years from now are secretly backstabbing black coworkers, or mobilizing to deny black political growth in their own communities. 

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 administrationand 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?

The racial uprising at some colleges and universities isn’t indicative of every black student’s experience at every white school. Millions of black students get along just fine with their set of black friends, black professors, and black mentors on white campuses without ever running into any sort of problem, just as thousands of black students at HBCUs never have to wait in a line for service or support. 

But all of us understand that comfort for one is not greater than justice for all, and all of us should be concerned about the marginalization of any black person in any space.  

HBCU advocates don’t want to argue our brothers and sisters down about choosing PWIs over HBCUs. But we’re also tired of PWIs making the argument on our behalf in a stronger, more damaging way. 

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