The issue of race in America has the distinction of existing in both the broad, sweeping arm of society and in specific microcosms of homogenized thought and identity constructs. Whether it be on the wooded, secluded compounds of a white nationalist organizations in the Bible Belt, or the bustling, ever-growing communities that amalgamate to create the Chinatown’s and Harlem’s of America’s various urban sprawls, one type of microcosm in particular finds itself at a rhetorical impasse between inclusive learning environment and isolated safe haven: historically black colleges and universities, also known as HBCU’s.
Responsible for the postsecondary education of hundreds of thousands of African-American students each year, HBCU’s were founded under the basic principles of equal treatment and opportunity for blacks. Following the American Civil War, many young former slaves would enter society as freed people, legally entitled to many, if not all, of the freedoms and rights that were once only granted to white Americans.
However, even with these newfound liberties, their ability to matriculate into society was hindered. The causes of this hindrance were both the stigma which remained fresh in the minds of many bigots and prejudiced white Americans, and the creation and enforcement of Jim Crow laws; Southern doctrine that would further subjugate African-American communities for nearly a century following the Civil War. Jim Crow also introduced the obstruction of educational opportunities for African-Americans.
HBCU’s were a response to such strife. They became not only academic institutions for black students who had been discriminatorily turned away from primarily white institutions, but also a cultural Mecca and protected zone for young African-Americans to live and learn sequestered from societal restraint. Leaders and cultural icons that have epitomized and shaped much of black culture and identity in America such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, and Spike Lee all attended HBCU’s. With this, it truly comes as no surprise that such institutions are coveted by African-American students, faculty, and administration.
Recently, Vice News published a documentary short centered around Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male postsecondary institution in Georgia and alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr. Specifically, the focus of the short was on Tiago, a white student, and his experience at Morehouse.
In the documentary, Vice News interviewed students and members of the administration at Morehouse, as well as professors, about the benefits and perceived dangers associated with the introduction of what they refer to as “non-traditional students” such as Tiago. The messages being transmitted from each group were mixed at best.
The administrative officials that were interviewed recognized, and had even begun to adapt to, the slowly changing demographics. When asked why this kind of acclimation towards the welcoming of non-traditional students to the university had begun to occur, Damon Phillips, an educational consultant with Morehouse’s communications office, said this,
“… it’s about finances. Ultimately, we have to find ways to fund our institution differently than we have in the past, so a lot of schools have been recruiting what we call ‘non-traditional HBCU students’… there’s a big push.”
This financial concern is very much warranted, for enrollment at HBCU’s is faltering nationwide. According to a Pew Research study, the number of African-American students enrolled at HBCU’s dropped by over 30,000 between 2010 and 2015, from 327,000 to 293,000. Over the past three decades, the percentage of African-American students nationwide that are enrolled at HBCU’s has been cut in half, from 17.3 percent to 8.5, with these numbers only projected to drop in the coming years. Many of the first HBCU’s in the country, such as West Virginia State University and Kentucky State University, now find themselves with black student populations of less than ten percent.
When speaking to faculty and students, their thoughts on the subject are birthed from different motivations. At the end of the day, to them, Morehouse is not only a space for learning, but a space for blackness. Their primary concerns lie with the affectation of culture at the school as a more diverse population begins to burgeon.
Robin Marcus, an African-American woman and former professor at George Washington University, had this to say when interviewed by Vice News about the importance of the preservation of a black identity on HBCU campuses,
“When you’re walking across campus and you’re reminded of who also walked on that lawn, who sat in those rooms – the legacy is palpable. To be able to step into that space, know that it was carved out for you, when the rest of your life says something very different about your value, your intelligence, your potential; at least for four years you’re not going to think about racism… [If you’re a white student] you don’t understand what it meant for this grass, this sod, to be here… [T]he full weight of history… is what it has meant for us, us black people.”
When asked further about whether or not barring white students from HBCU’s is “reverse racism”, Prof. Marcus categorized such an argument as a “specious” and “dumb” one to be made, and understandably so. Racism in the context of the black experience, as Marcus explains, is integrally propped up and aggrandized by the system and structures in place in society. Telling an African-American that they are legally unable to use the same water fountain as a white person and creating a historically consecrated academic place for African-Americans to escape the societal pressure of the world around them, without the encroachment on such places by white Americans, are two entirely different scenarios.
Black students at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, Spelman being Morehouse’s female equivalent, feel very similarly to Prof. Marcus. When Vice News sat down to speak with them, their arguments against non-traditional students also wandered down the avenues of historical context and cultural preservation.
“There is nothing a young non-traditional student can bring the culture of Morehouse and Spelman…” a young black student claimed, sitting amongst his fellow African-American classmates in Morehouse’s auditorium, “It’s us culturing here.” He gestures towards his classmates. Another student jumps in, “This place is sacred,” he begins, “Our ideas, who we are as people – we feel safe here,” his classmates nod in affirmation, “and if we had white people coming in here and taking over 40 percent of the population, I would feel disrespected.”
There was one student that Vice News spoke to who disagreed. “I would love for a white student, with the right intentions, to come here and learn about us as black people,” she stated defiantly, “We have a lot to offer, and I think it’s just a shame that we want to keep that to ourselves.” Her classmates were not impressed.
Still, these students can rest easy for now, as less than one percent of their school’s respective populations are made up of white students.
I believe this type of rhetoric speaks to a much larger story, one of an American intent and the perennial struggle within the realm of identity politics. You can draw parallels between what African-American students at HBCU’s have to say about the gradual integration of their schools and what the Richard Spencers and David Dukes of the world have to say about the increasing multicultural nation America has become and continues to trek towards.
Sentiments such as the sanctity of their place of choice being somehow degraded with the introduction of different kinds of people, or the loss of what they perceive to be their cultural identity at the hands of these different kinds of people, create an atmosphere of discourse that seems to become one not of civil disagreement, but of animosity in the face of racial change.
But the messaging, however similar the concepts may be, manifests itself in entirely polar contexts. White nationalists, whether they be alt-rights, Neo-Nazis, or Klansmen, speak of a white ethno-state where other races are strictly oppressed, if not ethnically cleansed. This calls back to a time where white Americans held the vast majority of legal and governmental influence – primarily over African-Americans – or at least more than they do currently.
Students and faculty at HBCU’s speak of a black safe haven where they can feel protected and accepted as an African-American in a country with a long and sinister history of racial marginalization and repeated abuses. To use the words of another Morehouse student, “so many students come to Morehouse to feel human and to not be dehumanized – to be as human as they can possibly be in a society like this.”
To these students, the world around them is white, and the only way they can conceivably compete for survival is to transport themselves, if even for a short period of time, to an exceptional place of exception from the white world around them. Whether or not this perception of reality yields any merit, which I am inclined to say it does, the integration of HBCU student populations could prove financially fruitful yet cause culturally fruitless repercussions.