“As it is today, American Negroes almost universally disparage their own schools. They look down upon them; they often treat the Negro teachers in them with contempt; they refuse to work for their adequate support; and they refuse to join public movements to increase their efficiency….As long as American Negroes believe that their race is constitutionally and permanently inferior to white people, they necessarily disbelieve in every possible Negro Institution.”- W.E.B. Du Bois, Fisk University class of 1888
Education is the process of becoming free. This is why Black colleges exist, to empower the formerly enslaved and their descendants in the enjoyment of their freedom. The White colleges, on the other hand, mostly sought to train White men to drive n*ggers, or at least, to be useful in a world built on driving n*ggers. We might guess what we can expect to experience in such places. Nevertheless, Black students seem unable to get enough. 89% of Black college students attend predominantly White institutions, while 11% attend HBCUs. Why? Many are under the impression they have no other, better options. Let us examine the facts.
Alma Mater of Fisk University: The Gold and Blue
John W. Work, class of 1895
The warm and genial setting sun
Lights up the hills with mellow hue
Where Fisk our Alma Mater stands
Majestic dear old Gold and Blue….
Black graduates of HBCUs report higher rates of satisfaction with their college experience than Black graduates of PWIs. No surprise to anyone with the remotest grasp of what it means to be Black in America. Any naivete should have evaporated after the “I Too” movement a few years ago, when Black students at well known White universities testified about the hell they catch. See also #Blackoncampus. Black PWI students expend massive effort trying to make space for themselves in places designed to exclude them. But why? I posit: the power of myth and propaganda. The so-called HBCU-PWI debate is only a debate because an overflow of stercoraceous content obscures the truth. HBCUs are compared to PWIs as if HBCUs are diploma mills and party schools while all PWIs are Harvard. White supremacy’s greatest ideological coup is to highlight its best side to hide its worst, while highlighting our worst side to hide our best. Even though only 11% of Black students attend HBCUs, they produce 20% of Black bachelors degree recipients. 33% of Black doctorate holders in a STEM discipline and 50% of Black lawyers received their undergraduate education at an HBCU.
Despite this, too many Black students think that in choosing PWIs they are securing their futures: “PWIs have better brands.” Wrong. Most PWIs don’t have a nationally relevant brand. There are 4,000 accredited, degree granting institutions of higher learning in this country. Of these I estimate no more than 20 have brands that mean anything. If I choose to be generous and expand my reckoning to 100, that gives a whopping 2.5% of schools with a meaningful brand. And of course, some schools are known more for their sporting prowess than for anything academic. I venture the number of SEC championships Auburn holds does its alumni little if any good unless they’ve set out to be athletes or experts in sports medicine. On the other hand, many HBCUs have sterling intellectual reputations, even if they are not as well known as some major college football dynasties. Related to this we find the myth of networking, the idea that PWIs offer, without distinction, access to the smoke-filled back rooms where privilege doles out its precious patrimony. Nonsense.
For one thing, if a school is off the beaten path that leads to prominence, as most schools are, its faculty members probably lack the connections Black partisans for PWIs assume they have. Otherwise, the faculty wouldn’t be off the beaten path. For another, contrary to popular delusion, Black faces in White spaces are nonetheless Black faces. Networking is informal and subjective. There is not a thing the diversity office at the University of Miracle Whip can do to make Professor Hellmans introduce you to his well connected frat brother from Brett Phi Brett. The same basic tribal impulse that makes White professors respond to introductory emails from Black students less often than those from White students and keeps them hellbent on not hiring Black faculty, impedes our access to their networks. You may hide behind your “respectable” name in an email, outside the internet, everyone knows that Black people don’t get to be White, no matter where they go to school. On the other hand, Black academia is notoriously insular. From my own experience at my illustrious, inimitable altogether excellent alma mater, Fisk University; HBCU professors throw networking opportunities at you. A staffer in a program I wasn’t even a part of spent hours one day working to get me a legal internship in Atlanta. She also connected me with her cousin who is a judge in Long Island. The dean of Fisk’s school of humanities introduced me to a famous Harvard law professor when he spoke at commencement. The same dean had previously put me in touch with the dean of the school of education at Louisiana State University, in case I wanted to get an Ed.D. I could go on. The networks at HBCUs may not be the same as Ivy League ones, but, most Black PWI students aren’t turning down HBCUs for the Ivy League or their equivalent, so I won’t dignify White supremacist myth-making by arguing as if they were. And even when this is the choice, HBCU networks have the additional benefit of not exacting a hefty Black tax as the price of admission.
….From North, from East, from South, from West,
Ethiopia’s children gather here,
And breathe in loft’est light and love
Of thy inspiring atmosphere….
Next we turn to academic rigor. HBCUs are routinely portrayed in the media as homecoming venues with schools attached. Hence, the excuse that going to an HBCU would be too “distracting.” Presumably, in comparison, PWIs are intellectual boot camps where real learning is the priority. For my own HBCU, we had no marching band, and while homecoming was certainly lit, it wasn’t anything to flunk out about. We often remarked, that Fisk left us so unburdened with opportunities to live fast and debauch, that we could not help but to be studious. The reigning American party school is the University of Delaware and its 18,000 mostly White students. This American Life had a whole episode about a previous title holder, Pennsylvania State University, which includes co-eds who practice habitual public urination, couches hurled through frat house windows, stolen stop signs and general debauched mayhem. A friend of mine at the University of Kentucky described the routine explosions of utter bedlam attending their game days; riotous mobs attacking automobiles and at least one case where a student menaced passerby with a gun. Willful public nudity is also common, as UC Berkeley, Harvard, Brown, Rice and Yale all have such traditions. In short, the tired saw about being distracted by the social life at HBCUs as a class is based on a distorted image of both PWIs and HBCUs.
The next myth that needs addressing is on results. Per polling: “55 percent of black HBCU graduates said they “strongly agreed” that their college or university “prepared them well for life outside of college,” compared to less than 30 percent of non-HBCU black graduates.” “While 29 percent of black graduates who did not attend an HBCU said they were “thriving in financial well-being,” 51 percent of black HBCU graduates reported doing so.” Clearly negative perceptions of HBCUs are not based on substantive evidence. So where do such perceptions come from? The myths I’ve examined add up to one thing: Black students shun HBCUs because their training and conditioning have taught them that even though they can expect to endure significantly more violence at PWIs, HBCUs are inferior as to the primary goal for which colleges exist: catapulting students to economic success. Rankings are no doubt a major driver of such perceptions. The most common metric of school quality is college rankings, they’re authoritative, clear, plentiful and popular. Unfortunately, HBCUs don’t do too well in these rankings. In U.S. News and World Report’s ranking, the highest ranked HBCU is Spelman College, ranked 51st among national liberal arts college. To understand this, we must understand how the rankings are made.
….To North, to East, to South, to West,
Thy loyal children make their way;
To execute thy fine behest,
“Go turn the darkness into day.”….
If you look at most college rankings, you’ll notice that the schools at the top tend to have low admission rates and high median SAT scores. You might assume this results from students knowledgeably picking the best college, when in fact, it is the other way around. SAT scores are, obviously, not a measure of anything that happens during the four years of undergrad. SAT scores also tend to correlate strongly with the other things college rankings weigh heavily, like six year graduation rate, no matter where students attend. Which gives older, richer schools with prestigious White alumni a built in advantage, because they can get lots of students who have been reared on elitist propaganda to apply, then select the applicants with high SAT scores and other less quantifiable metrics that tend to correlate with affluence. Unlike HBCUs, the top ranked White schools devote themselves to the students who least need support and pedagogical excellence. HBCUs have always addressed themselves to spreading the gift of education as widely as possible and propelling the gifted as far as their talents will take them. That’s why HBCUs are such powerful engines of social mobility. The metrics that relate most directly to what actually happens in college, student to faculty ratio for instance, are not as heavily weighted, nor are they as exclusive to the top of the rankings as high standardized test scores. (My own small yet mighty alma mater, Fisk University, has an 8:1 student-faculty ratio)
One last myth can be dispensed with quickly, funding. I have heard from several individuals that they did not attend an HBCU to which they had applied because a White school offered more scholarship money. Without fail, the people who say this have applied to either Spelman/Morehouse or Howard University. These hypervisible schools no doubt receive far more superior students than they can admit on a fully-funded basis, because these are the HBCUs everyone has heard of, and because HBCUs suffer the economic depression of White supremacy. There are 100+ HBCUs, many of which are on par with these three. In fact, the common Black college application allows students to apply to 35 HBCUs for a single fee. We must not allow ourselves to be so easily fettered by White supremacy’s gilded chains.
But why have I bothered to make this case? As noted above, almost 90% of Black students attend PWIs. Frequently, when the so-called HBCU-PWI debate flares up, Black PWI graduates feel they are being attacked or their Blackness questioned. The stakes are far greater than performative Blackness. In the battle against institutional and structural racism: Black institutions matter. As a people, we long for autonomy and the opportunity to exist out from under the thumb of White supremacy. Yet, here are 105 institutions built laboriously to fulfill this purpose, and, as Black students attend college in steadily increasing numbers, it seems that every year an HBCU closes, or, as happened to Bennett College this year; one of our schools finds itself in economic peril. The culprit is low enrollment as Black students dutifully hand their minds over to those who have the most invested in our ongoing degradation. The same students who declaim at length upon the need for Black businesses, forego the opportunity to funnel their education dollars into Black businesses which exist, not to enrich an individual proprietor, but to enrich Black America with the liberating bounty of knowledge. Many will elocute grandly about the need for Black thought and Black perspectives in academia, having bypassed institutions raised on that foundation. My point is not to scrutinize individual choices, but to acknowledge that institutions where Black students must wage constant battle for the right to exist cannot possibly be the best choice for 90% of us. Moreover, the easy cop out of individual choice “Go wherever works for you,” not only ignores mounds of social scientific evidence weighing on this question, it leaves Black America bereft of our greatest weapon, our only shield: Solidarity. It is empty clatter to speak of a free Black future without figuring out how to get there, it is farce to figure out how we get there unless “we,” in making our personal decisions take some responsibility for “us.” It has often struck me that some of the same people who can see the value in divesting from countries and corporations which do harm to support those that do good, develop a chronic case of equivocation when the imperative of HBCU attendance is brought up. Full-throated moral clarity becomes milquetoast both-sides-ism on this matter of supporting these particular Black institutions. Many who declaim with outrage the endless violence of White spaces, suddenly hew race neutral come time to cosign the ample evidence and common sense, that Black students are safer and better served at HBCUs and that those who care about Black liberation must support autonomous Black institutions where they can. I have heard from others, with no troubling by evidence, that Black women and Black LGBT people are less safe at HBCUs than at PWIs. I accept and acknowledge all individual lived experiences at face value; but, broad comparisons between classes of institutions require data. One individual cited sexual assault prevalence at HBCUs, even though endrapeoncampus.org says HBCUs are no worse than PWIs in this regard. It seemed the PWI trained Black, male social science graduate student I was speaking to had made an assumption based on old and ugly stereotypes about Black men. As for LGBT people, stats seem hard to come by, but suffice to say, all HBCUs are not identical. The same way one might interrogate LGBT inclusivity at a White school, is the same way one might interrogate LGBT inclusivity at particular HBCUs. We must be wary that we do not fall into the common trap of being led by our worst assumptions about Black institutions. HBCUs are not perfect, yet, it is strange how readily their shortfalls are brought to the fore. Why, when Black students at White colleges spend countless unrequited man-hours trying to carve themselves out a space in the bosom of pallid insularity, must HBCUs be perfect to be worthy? Is it not a wiser investment to reform our own institutions than to weary ourselves trying and failing to reform the White man’s?
….To heav’n, to country, and to thee,
Our hearts shall first and last be true,
We e’en shall die with loyalty
To heav’n to country Gold and Blue….
To Black PWI grads: nobody wants to spend the rest of your lives blaming you for a decision you made at 18. It is almost certain, you were a victim of the same misinformation and conditioning I have corrected here. The past cannot be changed, but, the future is an ongoing responsibility. I am not going to pretend that I had a full appreciation of the importance of attending an HBCU before I attended one. At age 18, I could easily have ended up somewhere else. Irrespective of where you went to college, however, if you believe in Black autonomy and Black folks educating ourselves, you have a duty to support and actively promote HBCUs as a class. Finally, the worst justification I ever hear for attending a PWI is that constant exposure to White supremacy is a necessary component of Black maturation. “There are going to be White people and racism wherever I go in the real world, I might as well get used to it.” This is a deadly lie.
The universe does not confide its secrets in me, I do not know for sure whether there is a God in heaven or a devil in hell. Nonetheless, 1600 Black babies were born today, and I can say with absolute certainty that not a single one was given life to suffer, bleed and die for White power. Contrary to popular delusion, enduring White violence is not the rent we must pay for daring to walk this earth. Education therefore begins and must end with these words: African youth and scholar, from the beginning of time your title reads clear: That as much as any who has ever lived, yours is the earth and all that is in it, from the pinnacle of the sky to the world’s bedrock and all creation ’round. The human story began one day when your Black ancestors, the first born of all humanity, marched up out of Olduvai into the universe, and it will not end before we stand free and mighty once again. This being so, how dare you to think you must bow down and sacrifice yourself to the boundless arrogance of an upstarted Europe? You are, and were born to be, more than a Nordic footstool. Why then should you train for such office? And at your own expense! Remember always that it is your legacy to know yourself and walk intrepidly in the world. That you are to stand true and singular in your dignity, in righteous communion with a vast human family. That this and nothing less is your inheritance and none can keep it from you. Remember that with this knowledge you can and shall do all things, and that without it you can do nothing. Ashe.
Then hurrah and hurrah!
For the Gold and the Blue,
Her sons are steadfast,
Her daughters true,
Where e’re we be we shall still love thee
FISK! our Alma Mater.
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