It’s perfectly fine that Howard University students are rebelling against President Wayne A.I. Frederick and the coverage of his engagement with the Trump Administration. That’s what HBCU students, and specifically those at Howard, are supposed to do. It is their birthright as beneficiaries of the HBCU experience; they take out loans, struggle and scrap in part, to join in the sacred tradition of young black resistance against ills on and off campus.
Those things don’t make Dr. Frederick a bad leader, shortsighted or a sellout. Like the 79 other presidents who traveled to Washington D.C. yesterday to meet with President Donald Trump, he’s smart about supporting those students and keeping his job.
And all of the black college presidents who want no parts of this administration, and are sick to their stomachs about the prospects of negotiating in a room with perceived white nationalists and supremacists? They are smart, too.
That’s the nature of this administration, and American politics at large. To many, President Trump represents an aggrandized, almost satirical version of it, but it is the same game that’s been played in this country for hundreds of years, and a game in which black folks have been used as pawns for far too long.
We should be angry, frustrated, distrustful, scared and humiliated about this chapter of HBCU history, but not because President Trump is writing it. He is a footnote in the narrative we have created and have allowed to flourish into what now is a negotiation for our survival on the terms of a president representing the collective interests of conservative white rage.
Don’t be mistaken – all Americans live with some kind of racial rage. Black folks are enraged that we don’t have the human or financial capital to advance our own interests and that the least of us are exploited by white folks who are enraged over losing industrial and cultural ground to people who do not look like them. Some of them retaliate by teaching heartwrenching lessons on crime and punishment, freedom and compliance, wealth and poverty, citizenship and commodity through a gunshot, a predatory loan, or some other form of restorative social justice.
And because of this sordid history, we are inclined to press more into the claimed territory of white rage to define ourselves as legitimate on the scales of humanity and productivity. If we smile enough, if we work hard enough, if we endure enough, we’ll prove ourselves worthy of exemption from harm.
But there is no America without harm, either through violence, displacement or a horrifying combination of the two. That’s the essence of freedom that weaves within our DNA as citizens, and as Black Americans, that genetic coding programs us to think assimilation first and collective action second – all in the name of preservation.
This is why so many of us are comfortable with taking such a hypocritical view of this meeting between Our Presidents and The President. Deep down, regardless of our level of higher education acumen or interest, we know that with the stroke of a pen or an afternoon of voting in Congress, the federal tax dollars that keep every single HBCU open and operable can be legislatively siphoned away from our institutions, our children, and our history.
But if we do not oppose it, we’re not being true to our heritage.
There is no law requiring the government to front education for anyone. There is no law requiring HBCUs to exist. All we have to reply upon, semester after semester, year after year, generation after generation, is the hope that those who preceded us in advocacy for black equality left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of the rich white men who run the country and that it does not fade with time.
In truth, we are asking these rich white guys with no social connection to HBCUs – only financial and political valuations – to do what we won’t do; support our institutions holistically. We are asking them to carry on the tradition of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Carnegies and Rockefellers in feverishly working to extinguish America’s burning resentment over the abolishment of federal cost-free labor policy which catapulted the country into a global superpower.
Ours is the race which send two students to HBCUs for every eight we send off to predominantly white institutions, but warns against President Trump as the wolf. We are the students, graduates and faculty members who do not hold boards and presidents accountable, but then cry out at the interference of rich white folks “showing how much they care about HBCUs.”
We are the ones who march for free against police violence but who do not march to HBCU development offices to write checks in support of historically black criminal justice programs.
We are the ones who anointed Marybeth Gasman as an expert on HBCUs; a white woman who works at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, who finger wags at our leaders for their perceived inability to implement textbook development strategies perfected in PWI contexts, and who much like Trump, believes that a Google Alerts news feed, foundation funding and a few relationships with HBCU leaders has provided all knowledge necessary to comprehend the historically black higher education enigma.
The question is not why HBCU leaders are “falling for the okie doke” of meeting with President Trump, but rather, why doesn’t UPENN face the same issue? We understand why there are persistent gaps faced by black folks in the pursuit of American happiness, but why are comfortable white folks in comfortable white spaces making comforting white money the ones always critiquing our inability to comprehend or to handle it?
Why are black folks in this conversation at all? Why not direct the questions, the research and the institutional prowess to the most pressing issue – how much of the liberal white ally narrative is actually shaped by white supremacy?
We must be clear – there is no difference in Gasman warning against ties with white supremacy, and Trump asking in 2016 “what the hell do you have to lose?” Both statements are made from positions of privilege, with zero context for the cultural, social and political ramifications for black citizens which come with both pieces of advice. Neither one of them actually knows what an okie doke for us is, or truly what we have to lose.
Both are made in the context of “I can help you because you clearly can’t help yourself, and you need me more than I need you.” It matters not how liberal or conservative the bend may be in the motivations of either figure. Gasman commands an audience with black HBCU leaders because she has perfected the double anomaly of being a white woman who allegedly cares about black issues and who can help us get money. President Trump commands an audience with black HBCU leaders because he holds the legislative power to help us get money.
Notice which one is saying “don’t go get the money.”
HBCUs don’t exist without racism. They aren’t established and are not funded without hundreds of years, thousands of benefactors and billions of dollars from public or private coffers consolidated around the all-American principle of “get away from us, you don’t belong where we are and where we ultimately want to be.”
There is no HBCU which exists today without the historic influence and economy of racist white people running through its history books and ledger sheets from banks, corporations and foundations established by slave trading, organized crime or corporate exploitation of race in the form of low-wages or high-interest rates.
And if all things are being considered equally, no white person that should have any claim to fame or influence over HBCUs if we weren’t so comfortable with this dark reality – that race and racism powers this country and fuels its progress. We must consider – when is the last time HBCUs have collectively received this much press for something not unrelated to hazing, sexual assault, thousands of kids being forced to drop out of school for changes in loans, or for a president being fired? When is the last time this many presidents have been in one room for a singular purpose?
More than this, has anyone noticed that Omarosa Manigault, a two-time HBCU graduate, is a chief advisor to a sitting US president? Has anyone noticed that his first order of higher education policymaking has been support to HBCUs, at her bequest and guidance? Has anyone noticed that the only positive press this president has commanded in just over a month in office has been engagement with black colleges?
Not Valerie Jarrett. Not Vernon Jordan. Omarosa from Central State University and the Howard University School of Communications. And ‘The Apprentice.’
The day that American racism dies, HBCUs perish with it. Who’s really ready for that kind of revolution?