Friday, December 09, 2011

A Black Student is a Black Student is a Black Student

Although I have been a member of the faculty and then staff of an HBCU for almost forty years, I have never been comfortable with an attitude held by a small cadre of my colleagues, namely: that the black students at HBCUs were somehow more important than the black students who attended non-HBCUs, that they were the true carriers of the black high culture, and that they would inevitably become the most eminent leaders of the black community.

This always struck me as the ultimate "blacker than thou game" ... and the most dangerous. Why? Because it tempts HBCUs into untenable arrogance -- to rest on the hard-earned laurels of their past achievements and neglect the equally hard work that will be required to attain comparable achievements in the future, and to politically naive expectations that HBCUs are entitled to American society's future support because of the substantial contributions that HBCUs made to that society in the past. But perhaps the most dangerous of all, it distracts HBCU educators from their historic mission, i.e., the education of black students.

The historic mission of HBCUs was to provide educational opportunities for the black students within their own institutions. This made sense in a bygone era when HBCUS enrolled over 90 percent of all African American college students. But given that HBCU enrollment of African American students today is closer to 10 percent and declining, it is a recipe for extinction. Close to 90 percent and rising of today's African American students attend non-HBCUs, the integrated mainstream institutions, integrated by virtue of the courageous efforts of the Civil Rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s who risked their lives to bring an end to the injustice of the American systems of de jure and de facto segregation.

Unfortunately, the victorious legacy of their bravery has been undermined by substantial and persistent academic achievement gaps between black and white students at those mainstream institutions. Where should African American students and their families look to for leadership in the strenuous and longterm efforts that will be required to close these gaps in the future? I submit that HBCUs must play an outsized role in this struggle. Most of us who became members of the faculty and staffs of HBCUs in the past did so because we thought that HBCUs were the places where we could best leverage our limited talents to help provide the best educational opportunities for the greatest number of black students. I submit that HBCUs still offer those advantages today ... but only if we broaden our perspectives to include an abiding concern for the the 90 percent of America's black students who don't attend HBCUs.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that the faculty and staff at non-HBCUs should not be concerned about enhancing the opportunities they provide to their black students. I am merely acknowledging that these other institutions will find it more difficult to focus their creative energies on their black students lest they be accused of neglecting the needs of the vast majority, i.e., their non-black students.
  • I am suggesting that HBCUs must become national centers for the development, assessment, and dissemination of educational innovations that improve the academic performance of their own black students AND of the academic performance of black students everywhere else.
  • And given that successful alumni are the ultimate proof of the effectiveness of innovations in education, I am also suggesting that HBCUs should not only celebrate the achievements of their own alumni; they should also celebrate the achievements of black alumni from everywhere else ...  if only because non-HBCUs seem to be so reluctant to take pride in their own black success stories. Yes, it's important for black students at the University of XYZ to learn during Black History Month that an eminent black scientist, engineer, or financial analyst graduated from an HBCU forty years ago; but it would be even better for those black students to learn about the eminent black scientists, engineers, and financial analysts who graduated from their own U of XYZ twenty years ago.
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