Stop Asking if HBCUs are Relevant
The following piece is from EBONY. It was written by David Wall Rice and Shaun R. Harper
By: David Wall Rice and Shaun R. Harper
For a host of mostly ridiculous reasons—including the fabled post-racialism—questions are repeatedly posed about the relevance and status of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). And frankly, the question is kind of offensive. Nonetheless, a crude psycho-sociocultural outline helps to contextualize why these questions about HBCUs persist.
Beginning in the 1960s, as Black students began attending predominantly White institutions (PWIs) of higher education in much greater numbers, HBCUs that had previously supplied leadership within and beyond Black communities suffered an erosion of support and enrollment declines. Certainly, with the access provided by demands from both the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, a “grass is greener” mindset flowered. Black families who were once relegated to “colored” schools started looking to the Ivy League and public flagship universities to advance the social status of their children.
In the late 1980s and throughout much of the ’90s, there was a resurgence of support for HBCUs. Some of this was the result of many Black PWI pioneers understanding the importance of a Black college education for their kids within a still racialized America.
This renewed excitement around HBCUs also paralleled golden era hip-hop, mainstream Black films like Boyz N the Hood, Spike Lee joints like School Daze and the network juggernaut that was The Cosby Show. (Its stereotype-shattering spinoff A Different World was famously situated at the fictitious HBCU Hillman College.) But these pop-cultural Reagan-era pushbacks dissolved in large part by the late 1990s and early ’00s, as the housing and tech bubbles began to blow and a traditional, rugged individualism again began to be understood as the goal.
Many families who came of age in the comfort of campuses that normalized Africa medallions, ‘X’ caps, dashikis and anti-apartheid-wear were stuffing their T-shirt revolution into Goodwill bags to give away—boxing them up and schlepping it to the attic behind the holiday ornaments. This in favor of ever-looming Brooks Brothers suits, leased BMWs and plenty of assimilation over ideals of liberation and work for equality.
At the same time, many of the most robust and traditionally impacting HBCUs were already abandoning foundational ideals, leaving shells of their institutions in pursuit of affiliation and identification with PWIs that were (and are) competing well for excellent Black students. Ironically, Black access to the mainstream has left still-vital HBCUs hollow in many instances. Endowments at Black colleges are down, while many PWIs benefit financially not only from alumni giving, but also from athletic programs that leverage Black physicality, research investments from the government and elsewhere, and assorted revenue-generating innovations.
No matter the stresses and strains of Black colleges and universities in the Obama era, underlying the relevance question is a nigh racist assumption that anything predominantly Black is bad while its White alternative is better and should be more desired. The dips and dives, the wrestling with identity and mission reframing that HBCUs have had to adjust for in the passing years is no different than adaptations required at PWIs. The stakes are much higher, however, because of the systemic racism that looms for Black people in the United States.
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