A groundbreaking discussion about race and politics
Trump has given historically black colleges a prominent seat at the table
For the second time in three months, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been thrust into the news — and not always in ways that were productive to the conversation we should be having about the values and goals we share for building a more educated, prosperous nation for all Americans.
The first instance was in February, when a group of HBCU presidents were part of an historic series of meetings in Washington with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Republican congressional leadership.
The second was earlier this month, when Mrs. DeVos was a part of an historic commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University — 30 years to the day after President Reagan gave the commencement at Tuskegee University.
The circumstances for these two events were different, and the reaction in the respective communities were dramatically so. But in the end, the truth about both meetings has been washed over in a strange narrative mingling race, politics and the most divisive conjecture of both delicate topics.
What we are seeing is exactly what advocates for HBCUs have long worked for, asked for and hoped for many years — a voice that is heard, a presence with and validation from our two primary political parties. And more than in the past, we’re seeing substantive action taking place as a result of sophisticated and bold leaders at HBCUs and in the White House seeing beyond rhetoric and fear to make things happen.
Our HBCU leaders went to Washington, and a sitting secretary of education went to Daytona Beach; both with the intention of building relationships that can hopefully one day soon benefit HBCU students nationwide. And both parties were subject to the most hurtful scorn and allegations of racial treason, shortsighted political maneuvering and selling out.
We’ve heard the misguided criticism that such events are just about “photo ops.” We can have debates on civility and the appropriateness of booing those with whom we disagree. But we’re missing the potential for an unprecedented period of healing and bipartisan approach to improving conditions for some of the nation’s most treasured higher education institutions and the communities that are economically and socially anchored by them.
I can accept that some may associate this kind of positive movement and authentic collaboration between our schools and this administration with skepticism. But every Republican isn’t our enemy, just as every Democrat isn’t our friend. Knowing this, we should also understand that every opportunity for dialogue is a chance for reasonable people of mutual interests and common sense to potentially find agreeable ground on virtually any subject. We are in the midst of this exact kind of discussion about higher education (and specifically the fate and future of HBCUs) with those who will be running the country for at least the next four years. This is groundbreaking. The level of attention given to HBCUs these past five months is unprecedented. We shouldn’t take it lightly, nor approach it with jaded views steeped in the nation’s unfortunate history of poor race relations and discrimination. We must look forward.
This is a chance for likeminded individuals, even if from different backgrounds, to listen, seek understanding, gather the facts and the data and then dialogue about how the nation moves forward, and all its citizens are made better as a result. For too long, African Americans have not been able to be a part of this conversation — now we are. To be beyond the periphery of what happens to our community is not something given by either side of the discussion; it’s earned by authentic genuineness from our HBCU presidents and chancellors, and our federal officials.
Listening does not mean universal agreement, and actively engaging and advocating in a positive fashion does not equate to blind loyalty. Let’s clear the air; refocus on what matters and work together to make sure our HBCUs thrive.
For too long, African Americans have not been able to be a part of this conversation — now we are.