White House Puts HBCUs in War Between Respectability, Accountability

The White House wants black folks to stop complaining about what it will not do for historically black colleges and universities. And maybe we should stop, given that President Barack Obama has clearly and repeatedly said that advocacy for HBCUs isn’t demand for support for American prosperity, but rather, an effort to run from our responsibility to graduate more studentsstop making excusesstop complainingand to stop being cynical.

Just last week, those same comments were on display when Arne Duncan told attendees at the National HBCU Conference that among our chief objectives as graduates and scholars was to prevent gun violence in black communities. Not so much as job creators, or innovators in secondary education, public health and municipal government, but as examples of decent folks who made it out who can come back to show youth a better way.

We get it. Obama doesn’t believe HBCUs are a pathway to prosperity. Community colleges and Ivy League schools, apparently, are the way forward for the country. But what shouldn’t happen in the last whispers of his administration is to keep pushing and kicking HBCUs into the growing, all-American wrasslin’ match between racial respectability and government accountability. HBCUs, the people who run them, the students who attend them, and the alumni who support them, don’t want any parts of this fight, especially with a president who has positioned himself and his rhetoric as the knockout artist sent to dispatch white racial animus and black self-pity at the same damn time.

White sovereignty and Black emancipation – two eternally burning concepts that, in 2015, have yet to converge upon the wick of solidarity, but continue to scorch racial politics within and outside of both communities. Violence has always been the tell-tale sign of these dueling perspectives, and the more violent the crimes against black humanity, the more public pity and outrage has worked to establish policy minimizing the appeal of strange and bruised fruit.

But violence has evolved into more covert and widespread methods of stymying black progress. Violence remains a go-to method of the less sophisticated racist, but stereotypical entertainment, stretching definitions of predatory poverty and debt, increasing marginalization of voting rights and access, and growing appeal for black people to live, work and learn outside of historically black spaces, all combine with state and federal policies to replace physical terror as the new way to frighten and divide blacks from ourselves, and from advocacy for deserved opportunities.

And because there are so many wars to fight, so many talking points to which we must respond with haste, there is little time to focus on HBCUs as a serious piece in the puzzle to heal Black America, and the government’s role in shaping its form. Instead, we get racialized rhetoric from current leaders and underdeveloped ideas from potential candidates like Hillary Clinton as a pitch to earn votes – even though most of her campaign funding comes from elite, Ivy League coffers. 

Certainly, we don’t make it easier. With every #TakeBackHU campaign, with every post on theHBCU Confessions twitter page, with every campus crime, with every HBCU presidential firing, every trustee-football coach fight, with every memo from Rufus Montgomery at FAMU, every SACS warning and probation notice, and every tweet from new Grambling President Willie Larkin, we give President Obama, his cabinet, and every HBCU opponent more ammo to chastise the HBCU community to ‘do better, then come holler at me about help.’

But even with those challenges, and others yet to be revealed, it doesn’t give government officials the right to categorize every HBCU as a lost cause or relic of an imagined post-racial nation. It doesn’t authorize the White House, or the Department of Education to hasten the demise of some campuses behind the excuse of “its on the states to treat you better.”

Banks were too big to fail in 2008, in spite of their own greed and ambition. HBCUs are too big for black communities throughout the country to fail, in spite of whatever levels of incompetence, or remnants of discriminatory support from state and federal government. President Obama did not take that position on gay marriage, immigration or health care. He did not take that attitude on free community college. He used his voice and position to affect change for marginalized groups and underrepresented causes, to push government to do what the people could not or would not do for themselves because of its own racist and politically charged climate.

There is no problem at any HBCU campus which cannot be reversed with partnership, monitoring and investment from state and federal government.

Even if President Obama and other DOE officials say otherwise – over, and over, and over again.

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