On HBCU Presence in the White House, Biden-Harris Administration Faces Unusual Foe in Bill Clinton

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Conventional wisdom suggests that on subjects of race, leadership, and IOUs for a historic presidential campaign victory, President-Elect Joseph Biden has two primary opponents standing between him and history; Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

In Trump, Biden has to do more for historically Black institutions than did his predecessor, who despite his penchant for racism and narcissism, will go down in history as one of a handful of presidents to engage in direct support of HBCUs, and perhaps the most successful.

In Obama, Biden has to take the subject of race by the hand and usher it into a new national conversation on American exceptionalism; that is, that the country will only be as good and only capable to lead in so much as it is willing to face its true reckoning on racism and disproportionate treatment of Black folks across generations. Where Obama called for healing and understanding, Biden is compelled to build new foundations based on policy and resources.

Biden created healing in many areas with his selection of HBCU alumna Sen. Kamala Harris. Along with Morehouse College alumnus and senior adviser Cedric Richmond, two of the people closest to the incoming president have HBCU DNA in their veins and HBCUs advocates in their ears. That goes a long way.

Or at least, it would have been in any era before Donald Trump, George Floyd, COVID-19, and everything in between. Now Harris is the largest figure in the story of how African Americans were the primary factor in delivering Biden a presidency, how the HBCU sector was a central figure in Trump’s effort to fend off that victory, and how much is owed to the Blues people for this year and every other year we’ve been generally overlooked and abused.

The name of the game is leadership; real, impactful, affectionate, authentic, and accessible leadership that shows the world that if Black folks can save the country by way of the ballot, certainly we have earned the right to help run it. And there’s no better recruitment hub to find those Black people than from the talent pools dug out and maintained by the HBCU community.

That’s where the influence of former president Bill Clinton comes in. While Biden has picked only one other cabinet member outside of Harris from the HBCU community, new Environmental Protection Agency head and North Carolina A&T State University alumnus Michael Regan, the 46th president has the legacy of the 42nd’s appointment record looming larger by the day.

Clinton’s HBCU-bred leaders’ list includes Mike Espy (Agriculture); Alexis Herman (Labor), Hazel O’Leary (Energy), and Togo West (Veterans Affairs). All with the exception of Herman and O’Leary (Xavier University of Louisiana and Fisk University, respectively), were Howard grads — but all were HBCUs alums.

As it stands, the only other HBCU graduate on a growing list of nominees, appointees, staffers, and personnel within the Biden White House is Press Assistant Amijah Townsend-Holmes, a Spelman College graduate. The rest of the list? A familiar mix of graduates from Ivy League and flagship predominantly white institutions — the same institutions from which American leadership has always disproportionately drawn its talent.

The Biden-Harris Administration does not want to send a message that HBCUs are good as a talking point during a campaign or in an acceptance speech. The President and Vice-President-Elect can’t say that our sector is worthy of more investment and attention but avoid proving it through their hiring and appointments.

If this is the presidential administration that will truly take a stand on behalf of Black folks and for HBCUs, then building back better means doing more than even the Clinton Administration did under far less dire circumstances. Show the world that HBCUs are what you truly say they are, and make our leaders into America’s leaders.