We get it right when it comes to so many other areas of institutional injustice. When black folks get shot and killed by police, we talk about body cameras, engagement tactics and metrics of accountability. When black folks are mistreated by an employee of a store or business, we boycott the business at large.
But too many of us seem to think that the campaign against black college students’ right to higher education starts and ends at predominantly white campuses. Media too often shows campus-based racism as a thing of Black students being harassed, maligned, misunderstood, intimidated and rejected by white students and faculty is what defines our understanding of racism on campus. Those things are real, and all black folks should be advocates against mistreatment of our students inside and outside of any college campus, everywhere across this country.
But for a change of pace, it would be nice if the same way black folks in and around PWIs look to the rest of us to unite against the enemies of their personal freedom, we could depend on them to support our fight against the same assault against our institutions themselves. Of all the elements which make the HBCU v. PWI debate so complex, its the uneven approach to campus-based racism which divides us most, because family on the PWI side of the argument don’t seem to get that a predominantly black campus is as much, if not more of, a target for white racism than is a predominantly white campus with a few thousand black folks on it.
We can see this phenomenon in action with the debut of the ‘Black On Campus’ storytelling initiative, designed through a partnership between Wake Forest University and The Nation Magazine to help black students share the pain and power of surviving racism on predominantly white campuses.
But it only tells half of the story.
To be clear, black folks aren’t racing to see which of our college-based subgroups endures more pain or is built toughest to withstand the burn of ever-present oppression. We feel for every single person at the University of Virginia, UCLA, the University of Alabama, the University of Michigan, Harvard University, the University of Maryland, the University of Missouri, and every other campus where a black person has been subject to even a single instance of racism, racial bias or discrimination.
But unlike the family on those campuses, the stories of institutional racism against black students and HBCUs have gone largely unheralded for decades, without the benefit of liberal media outlets looking to expand coverage of their struggles.
For every black student barred from joining a white sorority or for every racist rant from a white student at the University of Alabama, there are dozens of stories about Alabama elected officials disrupting Alabama A&M University and Alabama State University with exaggerated audits and empty charges of administrative wrongdoing.
White students at UA can be as racist as they want and it would never cause the same threat of enrollment decline, drops in philanthropic support and accreditation issues as the acts against committed Alabama HBCUs from elected officials. And those negative impacts can change the course of institutions, communities, and prospects for thousands of black students.
A black student government official at Clemson University called efforts to impeach him last year a ‘social lynching.’ Clemson has never faced public declaration from elected officials that the school should be closed, as they did with South Carolina State University in 2015.
Black employees at the University of Maryland-College Park sued the school for racial discrimination that limited their ability to serve effectively as workers and resulted in unequal treatment. Combined they were seeking $3 million in damages.
Alumni from Maryland’s four historically black institutions sued the State of Maryland for decades of inequality in program duplication which resulted in decreased enrollment, underfunding, and underdeveloped campus communities. They won and are in mediation for an agreement which could result in $600-800 million worth of costs to make the campuses comparable and competitive.
When white people or systems go after black students, it causes a nation to rise up and to call for justice. When white people or systems go after black institutions, we hardly take notice. Black students and institutions deserve better from us – in advocacy and acknowledgment.