HBCU vs. PWI – The All-American Debate

Katherine Wheatle writes for NBCBLK a compelling argument for why black students and graduates of historically black colleges should not criticize black students and alumni at historically white institutions, particularly in the aftermath of racist events or in the midst of racist culture.

The case is compelling for several reasons, but chief of which is the notion that no amount of shame dissolves the need for black folks seeking and earning education from wherever we can get it, and the reality that even if HBCUs could accommodate a majority of black students, they still wouldn’t be prepared to take on the burden of enrollment explosion.

All Black educated folks need to stop reinforcing white supremacist ideas of who Black students in American higher education are, or should be, by vilifying the choices they make to obtain the degrees that will help them earn higher wages and economic stability.

HBCUs are not exempt from the infiltration of white supremacy. HBCUs cannot protect students from white supremacy. HBCUs exist and survive by white supremacist educational policies.

Wheatle’s logistical analysis is spot on and her cultural take is a helpful primer for HBCU advocates who sincerely want to contextualize our shade towards brothers and sisters at PWIs. But it also calls into the question the very notion of black critique; our ability to police our own sociopolitical, economic and cultural norms. If we accept that criticizing black people attending non-HBCUs is our remix of white supremacy, then what else falls into that category?

Is criticizing black women behaving badly under the banner of black Greek sororities an extension of anti-black women rhetoric? Or what about the debate on when or if black women should be judged for how they wear their hair?

What about black critique for black conservatives who support right-wing ideology, or even an unpopular president?

What about criticisms of the first black president on his political shortcomings for black social progress? Or black folks who date and marry outside of our race? All of these issues which have divided Black America in varying spaces and at varying times throughout our history in the country are real perspectives drawing real reactions from people of all education levels, class, and background.

We entertain these controversial issues because they all in some way large or small represent our perspectives on survival. They draw out of us our most authentic, heartfelt beliefs on how we collectively survive white supremacy and oppression as a people, against the backdrop of our individual, Americanized views of freedom, expression, and personal responsibility.

But somehow, higher education is boxed out of what is ‘acceptable’ divisive conversation among black folks. It is perfectly fine for black folks to debate why we can’t have universal, homogenous buy-in on black respectability (especially from our women and girls), loyalty to liberal ideology and Barack Obama, and supporting the propagation of the traditional black family unit.

But if we say that black people should attend black schools, some people take it is an affront to our civil rights heritage and a petty outlook on the once-prohibited ticket to enlightenment and financial freedom that everyone should be trying to get in order to get ahead.

And if you think these issues aren’t comparable, or that the HBCU vs. PWI debate doesn’t meet the muster of the other subjects to be considered as a part of the souls of black folks, consider the economic, political and social drivers in this country represented by HBCUs.

In the college enterprise, the collective heavy lifting of diversity in executive hiring, coaching, the admission and achievement of students from underrepresented and under-resourced communities is done by HBCUs. In their respective cities, HBCUs are often the largest employers of black professionals in skilled and unskilled jobs, carry the lion’s share of research done to improve conditions for black people in public health and political autonomy, and they remain among the nation’s most active institutions in training black educators, agriculturalists, social workers and STEM professionals.

And yet, black people should ‘do better’ and avoid debating the merits of which college type is the better financial and cultural investment for black students? Doesn’t make much sense.

Black people have the right to debate and to flat out argue amongst ourselves about what is best for us, and above all other debates, higher education should be central among that discourse. As an industry, it drives the existence of communities and the future of our intellectual and social brand as a nation of people – so much so, other nations of color are trying to figure out exactly how HBCUs have survived so that they can now create them for their indigenous minorities.

The most intelligent among us understand the role of HBCUs, how much they need support from all Americans, and why they are more than blips on the Black American roadmap of the people’s journey from enslavement to emancipation. The less enlightened will argue the merits of HBCUs on the notion of bad timing of critique in the midst of racial crisis, homecoming, nurturing environments, and other areas which don’t really capture their importance to the nation.

Wheatle is right in her argument, but wrong in her view of how critical it is that we internally debate their importance – especially given the range of topics and issues we are fully willing to argue about, with far less value to our survival as a people.

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