HBCUs are worth more than a photo op


I love Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I’m biased, as I’m a graduate of Howard University. My friends, family members and colleagues are HBCU alumni. My first major case as a lawyer centered around the desegregation of Maryland’s four HBCUs.

I am particularly proud of HBCUs for what they have managed to do despite the perennial challenges of systemic racism and inadequate investment.

Thus, I find myself troubled by the Trump administration’s February 27 meeting with HBCU leaders. A photo opportunity emerged with President Trump and went viral. The same day, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a statement asserting that HBCUs are “real pioneers of school choice.”

I recognize the validity of some assertions made by the Trump Administration in reporting what transpired during the listening session. For instance, enhancing the infrastructure of HBCUs could increasing their competitiveness. However, a photo opportunity and press release associating HBCUs with school choice severely mischaracterize the history and promise of these institutions.

Opened their doors
At their founding, many HBCUs opened their doors to students who had been previously denied an opportunity for a postsecondary education. As they evolved, HBCUs have fortified themselves as supportive spaces for students to refine their commitment to social justice and learn of the significant contributions of members of the Black diaspora to the world.

When I think of my Howard experience, I recall marching to the White House in 2011 to protest the execution of Troy Davis; traveling to Annapolis to call for an end for the death penalty in Maryland; and partnering with grassroots organizations to canvas in Baltimore as a part of the University’s Alternative Spring Break initiative.

Increased funding, stronger programmatic offerings and better facilities would undoubtedly assist HBCUs in reaching their full potential. What the new administration must also understand is that HBCU graduates often leave their campuses with both degrees and a mission to achieve racial and social justice.

For many HBCU alumni, myself included, that photo opportunity does little to mitigate the damage already done by the Trump administration’s policies to these principles, including the travel ban, the rescission of the Obama administration’s Title IX guidance for transgender students, and the Department of Justice’s decision to remove itself from a crucial challenge to a discriminatory voter ID law in Texas.

Additionally, the dark picture painted by President Trump in his inaugural address, emphasizing American carnage and a need to restore law and order, contradicts the administration’s rhetoric concerning HBCUs.

Harmful policies
As communities of color continue to mobilize against militarized schools and police shootings of unarmed Black people, among other issues, the missions of HBCUs and these activists find themselves inextricably linked. Harmful policies advocated by the Trump administration, including widespread availability of school vouchers and increasing funding to local law enforcement officers, stand only to exacerbate the push-out of children of color and limit their access to a quality public education.

The school-to-prison pipeline already hinders the promise of many young children of color by replacing school resources with those of the juvenile justice system. These practices indirectly result in a diminished applicant pool for HBCUs and make it that much harder for these institutions to fulfill their missions grounded in justice and equality.

HBCUs constitute strong and powerful portions of the American story. President Trump and his administration must remain cognizant of the historic and current purpose of HBCUs.

Increasing available resources is one part of the process. But arguably of more importance is implementing policies that honor and support the goal of HBCUs to achieve a society free of discrimination and bigotry.

Andrew Hairston, J.D., is associate counsel with the organization’s Educational Opportunities Project.




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