Morehouse College alumnus and acclaimed film maker Spike Lee made headlines yesterday by endorsing Bernie Sanders for president, the latest in a string of black celebrities choosing sides for the future of black America.
Lee’s radio ad doesn’t mention HBCUs, but Clinton and Sanders are working the timeless campaign path to the sacred black vote by settling at strategic historically black college stops along the way. And much of their education speak has been directed at HBCU audiences, with booming rhetoric about free tuition and direct support to black colleges at a time where many of these schools are under direct attack from state legislators.
This creates a lot of dissonance for HBCU advocates who want to believe that in a post-Obama White House, there can be some model of federal influence for black colleges beyond “stop complaining and graduate from school without becoming a cynic.” Clinton and Sanders are promising many things, including free tuition for the first two years of college, slashed interest rates students who need loans for the last two years of college, and more direct support for public and private institutions.
We can debate the merits, political intent and fiscal reality of these plans, but they mean nothing if there are no HBCUs left for students to attend. While both candidates are on the campaign trail talking up HBCUs, several states are actively working to compromise, close or merge several public HBCU campuses.
HBCU students and alumni in Maryland are nearing the finish line on a decade of litigation in the state to dismantle an illegal separate-but-equal system of higher education which benefits predominantly white institutions and white students.
In the last two years, legislators in North Carolina and South Carolina endorsed bills calling for the closure of Elizabeth City State University and South Carolina State University, respectively. In Louisiana legislators are likely to soon advance a budget that will create harsh new budget realities for Grambling State University and the Southern University System that, in the best of scenarios, will drastically reduce program integrity, workforce, and student services.
We’ve heard enough about how the candidates will back states which earn federal subsidies for HBCUs by supporting them first. With the impending election and the death of Supreme Court Justice and HBCU advocate Antonin Scalia, states are moving in overdrive to phase out HBCUs before policy makes the notion more difficult to fulfill.
If Clinton and Sanders are serious about HBCU engagement, they will not only move to make direct HBCU funding a priority, but will publicly discuss consequences for states which try to eliminate black college campuses. Phantom support for HBCUs is great for the campaign trail, but to earn our trust and support, we need to hear about how states will be held accountable for inequitable treatment of HBCUs.
Do Clinton or Sanders endorse a Department of Justice investigation into the nationally chronic underfunding and duplication of programs at public HBCUs? Do they endorse new guidelines for funding from federal agencies which, if not matched by state money, gets taken away from HBCUs? Would either candidate endorse a mandatory threshold of government research grants and contracts going to public and private HBCUs from federal agencies? How about a cap on earmarks and special projects which do not include HBCU support in their proposals?
These are the concrete, transformative ideas that students and alumni should be demanding of Clinton, Sanders, and anyone else who wants to be president of the United States. All politics is local, and until we hear substantive talk on policy that lends exclusive support to HBCUs and doesn’t simply meld HBCUs into broader higher ed proposals, we all should do the right thing and wait to hear from one who actually gets it.