Alton Sterling is the latest, but won’t be the last black man killed by questionable police violence caught on film. And again, the killing fields are within protest shouting distance of a flagship historically black college – this time, Southern University.
History teaches us that boots on the ground and voices in bullhorns will always be an unlimited asset for HBCUs in the fight against racial injustice, real or perceived. Black colleges will always be a hub for protest power, but over the last 40 years, HBCUs have been ignored as the institutional hubs to specifically address the roots of injustice; poverty, broken education systems, and underrepresentation in law and public governance.
In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, Harris-Stowe State University President Dwaun Warmack built a platform for ongoing community conversation around social justice. In Baltimore, Morgan State University President David Wilson launched a committee to study and recommend changes in the city’s political, social and economic structures after the death of Freddie Gray and resulting unrest in Baltimore City.
Prairie View A&M University George Wright became a national voice on the pain associated with police violence following the death of alumna Sandra Bland, a voice that also translated into student and civic action in a community dramatically defined by generational racism and division.
And now, the focus is on Louisiana, where HBCU stakeholders should again expect leadership to stand at the forefront of people fed up with uneven arrest and detention tactics, ambiguous rules about engaging active crime, and another black man shot dead on the streets.
It’s now time for Southern President Ray Belton, Grambling State Person in Charge Leon Sanders, and a coalition of HBCU advocates to go to those weary places far too many presidents, chancellors and students have recently traveled too often, to plead the case on behalf of the voiceless, hopeless, and senselessly departed.
It is their turn now to pledge the full force of their academic missions behind the cause of improving social justice outcomes for vulnerable and neglected communities throughout Louisiana and the southeast.
Even if SU’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy never earns the funding it needs to shift the scholarly discourse on disparate arrest rates of black men in Louisiana, or to bolster the number of qualified mental health counselors in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the demand must be made.
Even if Grambling cannot convince its own system board to hire a president with the vision to advance the school’s standing as a resource for the training of black police officers, educators and journalists who can reverse the impact of racism and poverty in the state, they must stand in and demand for it to be so.
Even if white lawmakers, rich black folks and everyone in between doesn’t quite understand understand that HBCUs throughout the country do more in a single year to address black disparities than any other institution or organization in the country does in a decade, the case must be made plain.
Because when the case is left unmade, and the bodies are buried and the prayers are sent up to Heaven, black colleges are left the only places where people know exactly how to prevent the next shooting from happening.
They know that it doesn’t start with black respectability politics, or police training, or new laws to prosecute overzealous cops working in neighborhoods they fear and resent; HBCUs know that the saving of lives begins with helping people to visualize life beyond selling CD’s in a convenience store parking lot.
It begins with building communities where police aren’t around just for crime response and arrest, but for collaborative peacekeeping and engagement with neighbors.
HBCU leaders know how to stop the madness, better than anyone.
They also know how that their cities and states, and even their own alumni, aren’t truly invested in seeing these solutions actualized through investment and accountability.
So they don’t demand change they know will never come.
But this time, they have to – because people’s lives actually depend upon it.