I am a proud graduate of a Black college.
I am the product of two parents who are Black college grads.
My grandparents were also graduates of HBCUs.
I grew up on an HBCU campus and always knew I’d probably attend one myself.
I love HBCUs and all that they do and have done to advance the Black community, build the Black middle class, and create a solid Black intellectual foundation for African Americans and America at large.
I love the bands.
I love homecoming.
I love the classics.
I love the rivalry and gentle ribbing we give other HBCU grads about who went to the better school or to our own classmates about who lived in the better dorm.
That said, I don’t want my daughters to have to go to an HBCU.
After reading Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s statement about Historically Black Colleges and Universities in which she called them, “Pioneers of school choice,” I’m flummoxed at either the ignorance that fueled the statement, or its hidden malice.
You see, it’s easy for us to believe that Billionaire Betsy signed onto a drafted statement offering hollow platitudes to the legacy and importance of HBCUs. I mean, she’s a vastly underqualified choice for her job as Secretary of Education who has no discernable knowledge of the America’s educational system other than; a.) there not being enough Jesus in it and b.) thinking the “public” part of schooling being the problem. To wit, in her efforts to achieve the end goal of a more free market Christian approach to education, Sec. DeVos eschewed the typical pathways to gaining credibility within scholastic circles. She never studied education or policy. She never taught school or sent her kids to public schools. Hell, she didn’t even work as a long term sub supplementing her in-class experience binge watching DeGrassi and Dangerous Minds.
Betsy DeVos became a subject matter expert on education the way that one might become a professional photographer; she spent a shitload of money on it and then used the amount of shit she’d bought (see: politicians) as evidence of her credibility.
Which leads me to my worry over the ignorance of her statement.
In a vacuum, what Sec. DeVos is saying about the need for and work of HBCUs is pretty benign. It’s exactly the kind of statement you’d expect from a government official on the last day of Black History Month to coincide with the Chief Executive’s meeting with several HBCU presidents and deans. A prototypical PR piece to align with the day’s messaging and a companion piece to a policy position that one could take or leave as they see fit.
However, given DeVos’s gross lack of qualification for her role in government compounded with her stated goal of promoting “school choice” as an alternative to actually fixing schools (read more about how that works here), the statement reads as less boilerplate and more like the pulling of a thread.
These two statements stick out the most:
“A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms (emphasis mine) that will allow students to reach their full potential.”
“They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access to and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
This leads me to my second point about hidden malice.
What’s most worrying about these statements aren’t the positioning of HBCUs as a crucial element of choice and opportunity for Black students. Anybody can say that. But when you couple what these statements say with overall conservative themes on access and Affirmative Action, we could be setting the table for a new separate but equal style of segregation in education.
Let’s not forget, this time last year when those “Stay Mad Abby” memes were floating around, Antonin Scalia had used his seat on the Supreme Court to float the flimsy theory that Black students had a harder time competing at Predominately White Institutions. In fact, it was Scalia who said;
“There are – there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well…. One of – one of the briefs pointed out that – that most of the – most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in – in classes that are too too fast for them.”
Knowing what we know about Sec. DeVos’s adherence to orthodoxy over experience, knowing what we know about how some conservatives view Black student performance and equal access, and knowing that Steve Bannon is still pulling the strings in the White House, it’s not so far-fetched to believe that this embrace of HBCUs isn’t based on a commitment to their cultural contributions. It’s about reestablishing a system of Black schools for Blacks and pushing segregation in higher education as a means of providing “choice.”
Why force the University of Texas to commit itself to a diverse student population and, according to some, “lower their standards,” when they can just offer Texas Southern or another HBCU as a more equitable “choice”?
Which leads me to my broader thesis about my daughters attending an HBCU.
Let me say this now, if and when my girls decide on where they want to go to school, I will support whatever decision they make. If they want to go to the University of Illinois or if they want to go to Spelman or if they want to go to Johnson & Wales. It’s going to be on them to do the work and get the grades to open the doors to opportunity and lead them in whichever way they may go.
I want them to have choices.
I want them to have options.
I want them to be able to go where they think is best for them.
What I don’t want is for them to be compelled to attend an HBCU because they are barred from attending school someplace else. Like I said, my parents and grandparents are HBCU grads and that’s largely because of the era in which they attended school.
I had the option to pick where I wanted to go and I decided on a HBCU. I wasn’t forced and I didn’t settle. I want my girls to go to Hampton or FAMU because THEY see themselves there, not because someone else sees them there.
So when the Trump Administration starts to embrace HBCUs, I get suspicious because I worry that the end result is going to mean more choice with less access, more options with less opportunities, and the return to a time when we supported HBCUs out of necessity over pride.
Oh, and for the record, my kids can attend any HBCU they want that isn’t Howard for undergrad. The Morehouse Man in me just can’t let that happen.