Thursday, November 04, 2010

Blacker Than Thou

A. Mr. Riley's Inflammatory Editorial

When Mr. Jason L. Riley, an African American member of the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal, published a defamatory piece about HBCUs on September  28th, 2010, I was surprised and disappointed. As the editor/manager of the Gateway to HBCUs, I have been conducting systematic reviews of their academic activities -- their teaching, learning, and community service -- for the last 15 years.

Given my own knowledge of HBCUs, I found that most of Mr. Riley's points were either incorrect or they merely reiterated some well-known deficiencies in the performance of some, but by no means all HBCUs. As an academic systems analyst, I recognize the importance of identifying problems as a first step towards developing solutions. However, when problems have been well-known for a long time, what purpose is served by high profile repetitions that don't make use of their high visibility to propose to constructive solutions?

But I was even more surprised and disappointed by the many ill-informed comments from readers that the Journal subsequently published on its Website -- not only by most of the comments that agreed with the Mr. Riley's attacks, but also by most of the comments that were supposed to be defending HBCUs against his attacks. Given the upscale demographics of the Journal's readership, how was it possible that so many of its readers knew so little about what HBCUs were actually doing?

A politically savvy colleague suggested that the Journal's publication of both Mr. Riley's essay and the readers' comments was a deliberate attempt by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, the Journal's very partisan Republican owner, to stir up racial conflict just a few weeks before the Congressional elections, conflict that would more likely benefit Republican challengers than Democratic incumbents.  While I am usually slow to subscribe to conspiracy theories, I could not think of a more plausible explanation.

As I gave further consideration to most of the comments from the HBCU "defenders" I became more disturbed by their tone than by their factual errors, a tone that I heard again and again in subsequent weeks in numerous responses from other "defenders" that appeared on other Websites and in other printed publications, a tone that, in my opinion, will do more damage to HBCUs in the long run than Mr. Riley's ill-informed editorial that will probably be forgotten sometime in the near future.

B. HBCUs Are No Longer Synonymous With Black Higher Education
Intense loyalty to one's alma mater is expected; indeed, colleges encourage it and depend on it to motivate generous donations of money and other resources from their alumni. For students and alums of HBCUs, an attack on all HBCUs is tantamount to an attack on their individual alma maters that they will not tolerate. No problem.

I have a problem when defenders overreach, when they explicitly or implicitly assert that an attack on HBCUs is an attack all black higher education. This disturbes me because HBCUs are no longer responsible for the education of the vast majority of African Americans. Whereas there was a time, as recently as the 1960s, when HBCUs provided 80 to 90 percent of the higher education opportunities for African Americans, today their enrollments are closer to ten percent.

HBCUs are only responsible for their own successes and their own failures. They are not responsible for the second rate education that most African American students currently receive from most non-HBCUs as reflected by the fact that most African American students at the vast majority of non-HBCUs have substantially lower retention rates and substantially lower graduation rates than their Caucasian and Asian American peers.

I am commited to my core to Jefferson's assertion that "all men are created equal." Therefore I am equally committed to its obvious corollary that "all black men are created equal." So if 90 percent of all black students currently attend non-HBCUs, then I have to accept the consequence that HBCUs have become a marginal segment of black higher education. Their students are not "better than" or "blacker than" the vast majority of African American students who are being educated (or miseducated) at non-HBCUs.  So HBCUs do not deserve a greater share of resources than their declining numbers represent. Hence those of us who are truly concerned with improving black higher education should direct the lion's share of our energies towards improving non-HBCUs ... unless ... unless HBCUs use their unique visibility in the national consciousness to assume a leadership role in improving the quality of the education that is received, not just by their own students, but by all African American students in all colleges and universities.

C. HBCUs as Past and Future Leaders of Black Higher Education
Most fair-minded observers acknowledge the contributions of HBCUs in times past; but given their small and declining share of black higher education today, what would enable them to provide effective leadership in the future? In my opinion, two characteristics provide HBCUs with substantial and continuing competitive advantages -- if we have sufficient wit to use them:
  • Organizational Diversity
    All black men may have been are created equal, but all HBCUs are not the same. Indeed, there is such an extraordinary range of programs and productivity among HBCUs that in previous blogs I have argued that they provide an ideal "natural laboratory" for identifying the teaching and advisement strategies that are most effective for educating African American students. 
  • Intellectual Diversity
    HBCUs also provide a precious intellectual freedom for African Americans when dealing with race-related issues that is rarely found at predominantly white institutions to this day, a freedom that allows ideas proposed by African American faculty, staff, and students to be judged on their merits without regards to "What Black People Really Think" -- as prescribed by prominent black (and white) pundits in the nation's predominantly white media.

    At HBCUs, where "everyone" is black, everyone knows that nobody speaks for all black people. When someone says something with which you disagree, you just shrug it off, saying "That's his or her opinion, but it's not my opinion." Counter-productive "blacker than thou" games can flourish at predominantly white colleges and universities and in predominantly white media, like the Wall Street Journal, wherein blacks represent a small percentage of the total community.  But at HBCUs where "everyone" is black, the color of a speaker's skin is never part of the message. 

    The diversity of perspectives afforded by this intellectual freedom gives me hope that, sooner or later, HBCUs will develop creative solutions for the well documented problems in their own programs.  More importantly, HBCUs will share their solutions with the nation's non-HBCUs and thereby contribute to improving the quality of the education received by all African American students.
Related notes: