HBCUs: Much Greater Than a Brief Photo Opportunity

I love historically Black colleges and universities, commonly referred to as HBCUs. I’m certainly biased, as I’m a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., but my admiration for these institutions extends across my lifespan and the generations that preceded me.

A host of my friends, family members and colleagues are HBCU alumni, and these institutions continue to contribute a great deal of vibrancy to American life and our system of democracy. My first major case as a lawyer centered around the desegregation of Maryland’s four HBCUs, and I recently wrote two pieces dedicated to the significance and personal history of HBCUs.

I am particularly proud of these institutions for what they have managed to do despite the perennial challenges of systemic racism and inadequate investment. With all of this in mind, I find myself troubled by the news that broke on Monday, February 27, 2017. A number of articles on various news outlets, as well as posts on social media, quickly made it known that the Trump Administration, ostensibly under the direction of President Trump’s assistant, Omarosa Manigault, had organized a meeting with numerous HBCU leaders. A photo opportunity emerged, and a peculiar picture, with President Trump, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway and the HBCU presidents and chancellors, soon made its rounds on the Internet.

To conclude the day’s events, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a statement asserting that HBCUs are ‘real pioneers of school choice.’ As a young civil rights attorney and HBCU graduate, I do 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 a number of HBCUs could certainly play a role in increasing the competitiveness of these institutions in the twenty-first century. However, a brief photo opportunity and press release associating HBCUs with school choice both severely mischaracterize the history and promise of these 105 colleges and universities throughout the United States.

At their founding, many HBCUs opened their doors to students who had been previously denied an opportunity to access a postsecondary education. As they have evolved, these institutions 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 experience at Howard, 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 community organizations to canvas in Baltimore as a part of the University’s Alternative Spring Break initiative.

Yes, increased funding, stronger programmatic offerings and better facilities would all undoubtedly assist HBCUs in reaching their full potential in the current global landscape. 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, which placed emphasis on American carnage and a need to restore law and order in this nation, contradicts the rhetoric released by the Administration concerning HBCUs.

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. To demonstrate an earnest interest in these institutions, President Trump and his administration must remain cognizant of the historic and current purpose of HBCUs. Increasing the available resources for these colleges and universities is one part of the process, but another part, arguably of more importance, is implementing policies across the executive branch that honor and support the goal of HBCUs to achieve a society free of discrimination and bigotry.

Andrew Hairston, J.D., is the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s George N. Lindsay Fellow and Associate Counsel with the organization’s Educational Opportunities Project.