HBCUs and Obama: Strangers in the Silhouette of Blackness

Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor today writes in the Washington Post on one of the last chapters of President Barack Obama’s legacy with historically black colleges and universities. This time, it is the omission of HBCU students from his entire catalog of state of the union addresses, and his stiff arm of HBCU culture over the last seven years,

As the president spoke to cement his legacy, there was scant reference to a constituency he courted intensely to keep his job. Headlines in 2012 across black media announced, “Obama campaign focuses on black vote, targets HBCUs,” as his campaign coordinated over 40 visits to HBCU campuses. Extensive voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts helped black voter turnout surpass white turnout for the first time in history. In short, when the president needed to reach his base, black colleges responded.

So as I reflected on the four big questions President Obama posed for the next president during his SOTU address, I thought of one for him: Do black colleges matter?

The quiet reading on our first black president is not that he ignores black people or black issues, but that he recognizes them within a context commonly driven by affluence and white privilege. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton before him, Obama is expertly talented at crafting connections with signs and symbols of black pride and perseverance, but also, at avoiding honest acknowledgment and remedy of the social threads which tangle and choke opportunities for black prosperity.

Obama can deal easily in the painful elements of blackness which can be universally understood by everyone. No one wants to be sick and decide between medical expenses and mortgage. No one wants to discover that 18 years of hard work and savings barely equals to one year of college tuition, and no one wants their child shot and left to die in a street in cold blood.

And so his legacy on black engagement and empowerment is tethered to health care, education reform and gun control – things which he delivered not as pro-black policy, but anti-poverty initiatives. When it comes to addressing specific and alarming disparities for black Americans in economic potential, public health, political influence and higher education, Obama and the team around him in the White House fortifies the cultural stockade to avoid what they all deem as unnecessary conflict with conservative legislators and power brokers.

Obama is careful not to give opponents any ammo to knock him for being too pro-black. This is why he can host Wale’ and Kendrick Lamar in the White House to discuss theoretical framework for black social and cultural change, but never extend the same invitation to HBCU presidents or students. It is more than him just being more comfortable with rappers, those perceived voices who simultaneously uncover black despair and ambitions of self-made success; this is about who he finds to be most relatable, reliable and useful for public conversation on black progress.

He genuinely just doesn’t want to go there on matters of substance when it comes to race, because complex cultural matters typically require big finances to fix. Banks did not set rules for predatory lending and consumer business, but the culture which allowed it became too pervasive to ignore without federal intervention. Terrorism is not the sole enemy of America, but the culture borne out of September 11 and leagues of caskets returning from combat zones requires a hefty American check for military, and for allies around the world to remain on our side.

America’s racial wars are not driving the country towards financial bankruptcy, and aren’t giving the impression of imminent danger on domestic soil, so Obama steers clear of addressing the nation’s oldest, most-long standing moral issue. And that’s how he is able to be the keynote speaker for Morehouse College’s commencement, only to tell the best and the brightest of our men to avoid cynicism, to be responsible fathers, and to stop looking for excuses.

This is why he can make dozens of stops at HBCUs during his campaign seasons, only for thousands of the same students who cheered and cried for the symbolism of his candidacy to be kicked out of school following a sudden, devastating change in federal loan programs.

This is why he has never met with his advisory board on HBCUs, has never attended the Department of Education’s annual HBCU national conference, and even told members of the federal Congressional Black Caucus to ‘stop complaining and tell HBCUs to get their graduation rates up’ in response to their appeals for equity.

This is why it is no coincidence that Saint Paul’s College, Knoxville College and Barber Scotia College, all of which have struggled with financial hardship for decades, have permanently or temporarily closed their doors in just the last three years.

Obama can deal with black struggle and black excellence – but very little in between. HBCUs, by their nature, live at the margins of both realities. They operate on the verges of financial crisis and cultural breakthrough every single day; empowering students and faculty to do and to give more in spite of society’s push for them to disappear into a post-racial oblivion. And to their credit, students and faculty deliver in spite of the emerging social norms which make their commitment and productivity seem anonymous, racially-tinged and socially irrelevant.

Perhaps today’s candidates will learn from Obama’s arm-length engagement with black colleges and the black people they serve. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are attempting to atone for Obama’s sins in their campaigns, and may find themselves in different cultural space to actually make and keep a few promises which may benefit HBCUs.

But when we think about legacy, and the things for which Obama will be remembered, black folks with intimate ties to HBCUs will remember the president as a biased referee in Black America’s fight against historic inequities and cultures which propagate it. Through his perceived vision of wasted negro potential, and without regard for forces which shape it, Obama decided early and purposefully that HBCUs were little more than a tool by which to covertly deliver subliminal messages of “yeah we’re black, but I got mine and ya’ll better work hard to get yours.” Gays and lesbians, Hispanics, refugees and lethargic democrats, and racist republicans didn’t receive those messages as harshly as our communities did, but that’s because he never felt any real threat of consequence for not treating us fairly.

That was our fault, and always will be.

So here’s hoping that the next round of voting, the next attempts at high-level advocacy and equity for black colleges, yields a better result than the skin-deep aspirations we dreamed for the Obama White House. Either that, or we all take up rapping as a new hobby.

10 comments
  1. I’m sorry but u are very misinformed about your president. He has spent much of his presidency making sur black culture was brought to the forefront but the media never covered it. He directed large sums of money from the dept if Ed to support H B C U S and inner city schools. He also started My Brothers Keeper program to provide mentoring and support specifically to black youth. He had a huge ceremony at the White House but the media barely covered it. Get your facts straight please

  2. TC is clueless and misinformed. He/she probably works for the Obama Campaign or the Administration.

    FACT: HBCUs received less — not more — funding under Obama than any of the last 3 presidents
    FACT: Obama has never — not once — attended the HBCU meeting hosted by his own White House, nor has he met with the group he appointed to address HBCU issues (White House Advisory Board)
    FACT: Obama — not Congress — created the Parent Plus Loan debacle that forced thousands of black college
    students out of school
    FACT: He specifically announced he was not going to make some "huge program" out of My Brother’s Keeper — so he did not fund it in his budget
    FACT: The media didn’t cover the ceremony because they know he did it simply to get media coverage, but there was no substance to it. The cover "real news" – not "political media events"

    I could go on and on about Mr. Obama’s slights of our community.

    1. I agree with what the Pres said. Get your graduate rates up. People with money don’t invest in losing bets. HBCU’s! If they loved black people so much why do they not feed us as black people the truth about financial literacy.

      Getting an education is the first step to a long road of financial freedom or so we are told. We don’t need money from these majority white establishments when we spend more money than all other groups combined on all the wrong things.

      A dollar last but 15 min in our community but circulates anywhere from weeks to infinity in other communities.

      Why are HBCU’s not teaching and training us to build our own jobs instead of asking for one? Why don’t they educate us on how to organize for success? It sounds to me that a bunch of administrators ate just trying to keep their job. Because of the lack of true concern for its own peoples well being HBCU’s have little to no credibility at large. They are only know for how well they party, how great the bands are and how great of an athlete they turn out.

      I could care less if they all closed their doors because they aren’t helping anyone but the people at the top who collect the money!

      1. HBCU’s definitely have their faults- and some black scholars have argued that they are not truly black institutions. That notwithstanding, it does not excuse Obama ignoring black students by pushing punitive loans programs that will do nothing except drive black students from applying to college. Every black student that isn’t in college is likely to become an unemployment statistic unless they can get financial education. Black students deserve to get a college education just the same as any American student. Obama must be called to account.

      2. You make blatant generalizations about what HBCUs teach its students. I agree that financial literacy is necessary to help sustain student matriculation; however, HBCUs have developed model programs and initiatives that provide the requisite information and resources to assist students as they navigate their way to a college degree. HBCUs provide not only the academic training to be competitive in todays workforce, but also the faculty and administrative support to engage students’ entrepreneurial goals and aspirations. Mr. Taylor’s article hits the proverbial "nail on the head". I am an Obama supporter; however, the article’s analysis of the President’s engagement and support of HBCUs is accurate.

    2. Exactly. Thank you for being an angry black man. We need the TRUTH about how Obama has deliberately refused to engage with the black community simply to protect his reputation and political achievements.

  3. Excellent article that finally tells the truth about Obama’s record on race. Hvae bookmarked this and shared it to my Facebook timeline.

  4. President Obama is no 100% African-American. He did not have the same experiences grow in up as many African Americans did as far as culture is concerned and he did no attend an HBCU or even hang out at one. So let’s face it black HBCU students now alum he pimped us for the elections and we got nothing in return. Considering all the aforementioned conditions we should have not expected anything. He’ll actually Obama has been counterproductive to HBCU because he has had so many opportunities to promote them. How does it feel "black America" to get screwed

  5. Mr Carter you said so many uncomfortable truths in this article, that it’s almost too painful full to recognize that we African American people, have been “had and bamboozled” just like Malcolm X used to say, by Obama for the last 8 years. He was NEVER a true friend to and advocate for African Americans in ANY sphere of American life. He and his phony wife Michelle always acted like self-hating negros who were easily embarrassed by our Blackness and their ethnic ties to our race. I am a proud graduate of an HBCU as is my son, so my antenna was up from the beginning to see if Obama was going to be hurtful or helpful to HBCUs. I noted early on that all of his African American appointees (the few that there are) came from Harvard or Princeton, as if those schools are the ONLY ones in America that graduate talented people who can serve in the government. I also noted his elitist tendencies and preferences as well as that “lecturing tone” both he and his wife have used over that last 8 years when addressing African AND African American audiences. I have been and iam currently disgusted with the amount of ground we have lost as a people during his tenure in office. I learned a few months ago that HIS Department of Education was giving 3x as much money to white schools that don’t even need it for STEM Science and Math programs, than was going to the HBCUs. So I really “get” your point totally Mr Carter and yes, I agree, that with this next administration coming in 2016, we need to HOLD the president ACCOUNTABLE and other major players like the Education Commissioner accoutable for delivering the promises made to fund programs at HBCUs on par with funding for similar programs at PWIs.

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