Nearly a year of clandestine political outreach, months of relationship building and weeks of policy drafting yielding the most progressive proposal of federal support of historically black colleges in some years may have just been undone by one paragraph in a White House press release. And for our schools, our greatest fear is not the possibility of it coming to fruition, but that our greatest efforts to diversify political capital may mean nothing to any party, at any time or for any reason.
A few sentences at the end of a White House communication and a blaring headline splashed across POLITICO yesterday evening took it all asunder.
President Donald Trump signaled Friday that he may not implement a 25-year-old federal program that helps historically black colleges finance construction projects on their campuses, suggesting that it may run afoul of the Constitution.
My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender (e.g., Division B, under the heading “Minority Business Development”; Division C, sections 8016, 8021, 8038, and 8042; Division H, under the headings “Departmental Management Salaries and Expenses,” “School Improvement Programs,” and “Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account”; Division K, under the heading “Native American Housing Block Grants”; and Division K, section 213) in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
If you read through the entire release, you realize that this was probably something prepared by White House staffers as a common exercise to put Congress on alert that President Trump reserves the right to make his own decisions on spending for executive salaries, national defense and public works in the name of protecting executive privilege granted to his office by the Constitution. Plainly, it warns Congress that he will ignore certain spending which may pass through the House and Senate.
But classifying HBCUs as a potential violation of the Constitution suggests that HBCUs are discriminatory institutions. HBCUs have never barred students, faculty or executives of the right for people of all races and ethnicities learn or work within their borders, despite their creation to serve those who were once legally barred from the same at predominantly white institutions.
The mere mention of HBCUs as a point of Constitutional dispute suggests a complete lack of industrial understanding, political nuance, cultural sensitivity, and most of all common sense.
That’s the right of the White House to make that call. And it will be the right of HBCU advocates to determine the intent or impact of that presidential privilege and to make our voices heard accordingly. All sides should understand that none of those other areas has given President Trump the same social latitude that his engagement with HBCUs has provided since he stepped into the White House.
The only thing that has gone even partially right for this administration has been the work done on HBCU advancement. More than 70 presidents and chancellors helped people of all races and creeds to think twice about just how racist we think President Trump to be, and how compassionate he can be towards groups and communities with whom he has no personal connection.
The consistent work of staffers and advocates like Omarosa Manigault and Paris Dennard have helped once bitter critics of President Trump’s bluster and brashness to consider if this could actually work, particularly against the backdrop of an Obama Administration which actually harmed HBCUs and betrayed the racial solidarity we expected from the first black president.
HBCUs did that for President Trump. Not a flopped approach to border security, not a sputtering approach to healthcare reform, and not foreign relations. HBCUs put a feather in President Trump’s ‘MAGA’ hat; and in return, he’s given the appearance that we can all now just fly away.
It would be reasonable to assume that President Trump didn’t actually read this release, and likely neither did his well-intentioned, more thoughtful black policy proxies. That in itself is a harrowing hypothesis. But even if they didn’t, the smartest of advisors should know that HBCUs did not need to be a part of a big middle finger to Congress, given all of the ways HBCU leaders and advocates have sacrificed their own credibility to advance the idea of a partnership with the Trump Administration.
In fact, no programs involving development for minority businesses, housing or education needed to be mentioned. Everyone already believes President Trump and many of his appointees to be racist; why in God’s name provide more kindling for the justified fires of Black American rage?
As much as President Trump has said he wants to help us, and us much as Republican leaders in Congress and states appear to be following suit, this is not the way to make the overtures more believable.
For many, this will be the moment they expected President Trump to show what he really thinks about black colleges, black people, and the definitions of what we earn or deserve. Pell grants for HBCU students can increase, student loans with crippling new rules on repayment are fine; but institutions receiving a hand up to make campus facilities more modern, appealing and federally compliant with access requirements for citizens with disabilties is unconstitutional?
It bears mentioning that the HBCU Capital Financing Program isn’t that great of a deal for HBCUs. In the past, the Department of Education government charged high rates for loans, required HBCUs to put up other campus buildings as collateral to guarantee the loans, and used the potential of default as a way to broker other bad deals for our campuses.
But for as bad of a look the program has been, it is still an essential element of helping some HBCUs to compete. Several private HBCUs have been able to bolster enrollment and branding with new facilities constructed with federally-backed loan investments. Some are going to close in the next five years as a result of not being able to make the debt servicing on these buildings, but that is the nature of business; spending other people’s money in the hope that you can make enough to pay them back.
Donald Trump made a living doing just that as a real estate developer. And now, his White House saying that its unlawful for HBCUs to do the same thing to stay alive.
There is no question that HBCUs and their constituents must do a more effective job of lobbying and building partnerships with politicians of all values and concerns. And it is clearer today than over the first hundred days of the Trump Administration that our hardest and best work will be better invested in working with the people who orbit the President of the United States, and not Donald Trump; the man elected to bear the title.
But if one paragraph and one man can throw all of our best work into utter confusion, then it is abundantly clear that this work may not be enough. And if Republicans and Democrats can see this and take notes for future administrations, what hope remains for the majority of our schools to survive?