We Can Talk HBCU Politics and Respectability, But Leave Students Out of It

The point of a protest is to make things uncomfortable for an intended target, and for everyone around that target who cares to watch it unfold. This means that we don’t get to dictate what protest looks, sounds and feels like.

So long as no law is being broken, people have the right to make other people uncomfortable – it’s an inalienable right of being an American.

Not like this.

Unfortunately, Black America has long had a problem with this concept, and particularly within the context of students at historically black colleges and universities. Black youth turned the concept of civil rights into a movement; a movement which spurred legislation, and legislation which today continues to slowly turn our nation’s cultural dial towards tolerance, but seemingly has thrown the gears of black respectability into reverse.

Not since HBCU administrators 60 years ago threatened HBCU students en masse with expulsion, suspension, and cultural shaming has so much attention been paid to our struggles with black youth acting up and causing trouble. Bethune-Cookman University and Texas Southern University are in the national headlines, not for graduating thousands of black students, doing their part to reduce gaps in black earning potential, employment and innovation, but as a part of a foul, lingering conversation about how black folks should act in our communities in order for white folks to feel most comfortable in supporting our progress.

There remains a great divide between black youth fighting the power, and older black folks seeking collaboration with the white powers-that-be and who wanna be. It is nothing new at our campuses – HBCU students booed Martin Luther King Jr. for being too passive, and Malcolm X for not loving Jesus, and every white person in between who scored an invite for political reasons.

But one thing has alway remained consistent – older black presidents and vice-presidents hoping that young people would be a little more quiet, a little more knowledgeable and a little more introspective about what all of us may have to lose as a result of their shouting for more.

They’ve always shouldered the burden of knowing how much federal and state funding matters to the existence of these schools, and the nail-biting anxiety attached to the idea that riled up young people could force them to turn their hands and their philanthropy away from our campuses. And yet, they’ve not had the honest conversations with students about how the game is played; how an invite to the Secretary of Education could turn into a specialty grant for black colleges.

How the Republican governor serving as a commencement speaker could lead to internships in the state house, increased appropriations and less stringent auditing prospects from legislative committees.

Black pride and political clout are not evenly exchanged, but there is room to leverage both in order for black people and institutions to gain more in understanding and political resources. But the conversation, while ugly and uncomfortable it can get, must be had.

Booing US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was a part of that conversation. Canceling a commencement appearance from Sen. John Cornyn is a part of that conversation. If white lawmakers and policy shapers are so eager to arrive to our campus, then they must be willing to hear what frustration and protest sounds like from the very stakeholders they are trying to court.

Besides, there are too many incidents in too many places where older white folks booing in a place where they are paid to be isn’t described as ‘uncivil’ or ravaging their own causes.

Or students at predominantly white schools.

Or at a showing of ‘Hamilton.’

And if politicians and appointees’ good intentions can be dissuaded by booing, then it means they never intended to make themselves allies of consequence; just cautious well-wishers who were meant to be prisoners of the convenience of a moment.

We ought to give our young people more credit for their patriotism. Nothing about American history suggests that advocacy could be successful without dissonance; you cannot spell America without abolition or agitation, both with a capital ‘A.’ To suggest that HBCU students and alumni rejecting bad policy and their agents from appearing on their campuses should be immune to that history is to suggest that every other movement for some form of freedom – Occupy Wall Street, marriage equality, Black Lives Matter and countless others, are empty rebellions without catalyst or cause.

Let the power brokers, the presidents and the advocates and the media do what needs to be done in advancing an agenda of bipartisan solidarity. And let the young people do what they’ve always done by bringing attention to the issues with controlled protest and burning dignity. Just because they don’t think and prioritize like those of us years removed from graduation, doesn’t mean they are self-defeating uncivilized citizens with a whole lot of rage and not enough reason.

It means they aren’t part of all angles of the conversation and are fed up with it. We either need to bring our students into the dialog or leave them be. And if we are going to leave them out, then let students’ voices be heard without chastising and criticism from our own leaders and advocates.

After all, it’s not like young black people booing, marching, shouting and railing against the system has failed us yet.

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