ESPN’s ‘The Undefeated’ Faces a Presidential ‘L’ With HBCU Town Hall

Hopefully, it is the last chapter in Obama’s sad relationship with black colleges.

Hopefully, it is the last chapter in Obama’s sad relationship with black colleges.

ESPN’s signature digital black sports and cultural imprint, “The Undefeated,” will play host to a second presidential town hall meeting with Barack Obama this week; this time, on the subject of HBCUs at North Carolina’s flagship public HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University.

Billed as a candid conversation between the president and select HBCU advocates from the university, the conversation will analyze black colleges from a number of contemporary media angles. From The Undefeated:

President Obama will discuss lessons in leadership; the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative, which aims to address opportunity gaps faced by all youth including boys and young men of color; the current role and legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities; athletes and social activism; the Obama Administration’s actions to provide opportunity for students and more.

Eight years ago, this would have been a culture-shifting moment for historically black colleges, much in the way that Obama’s election was a culture-shifting moment for the free world. But eight years later, most who work at or study HBCUs closely know that President Obama’s appearance is little more than an application of executive WD-40 on a rusty relationship between the White House and HBCU campuses which desperately want to love him.

Through policy, prose and presentation, the Obama Administration has been clear about its stance on HBCUs and black people in general: stop complaining, do better, and above all else, do not be mad that this president is here to govern for all people, not just Black America.

Never mind the cuts to HBCU discretionary funding and the thousands of HBCU students displaced by eligibility changes to Pell Grant and PLUS Loans which cost black colleges more than $300 million collectively between 2011 and 2013. Never mind his first speech at Hampton University that served as a post-election victory lap, or the Morehouse commencement speech that spurred a quiet Ta-Nehisi Coates classic ‘How The Obama Administration Talks to Black America.’

But I also think that some day historians will pore over his many speeches to black audiences. They will see a president who sought to hold black people accountable for their communities, but was disdainful of those who looked at him and sought the same. They will match his rhetoric of individual responsibility with the aggression the administration showed to bail out the banks and the timidity it showed in addressing a foreclosure crisis, which devastated black America (again). They will weigh the rhetoric against an administration whose efforts against housing segregation have been run of the mill. And they will match the talk of the importance of black fathers with the paradox of a president who smoked marijuana in his youth but continued a drug war which daily wrecks the lives of black men and their families. In all of this, those historians will see a discomfiting pattern of convenient race-talk.

Never mind the Howard University speech where he dialed back on admonishing black students, but encouraged them to recognize that ‘race relations’ were far better than they ever have been, despite several polls from Gallup and Pew Research and others suggesting the exact opposite.

Never mind that he has never met with his advisory board on HBCUs, and has never addressed the annual national convening of HBCU stakeholders. Forget that he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus that HBCUs should ‘focus on getting their graduation rates up,’ even while for-profit institutions ravaged minority students’ long-term credit and job prospects.

Never mind that he floated the concept of free community college, a destructive measure that only after prodding from HBCU presidents and legislators, quietly added public historically black colleges into the proposal. And never mind that Hillary Clinton has spoken more to, and favorably about HBCUs in one presidential campaign cycle than Obama has in eight years.

Never mind that his response to a Southern University student — during a town hall meeting in Baton Rouge — yielded a pile of rambling remarks about student loan debt, non-completion and Morehouse and Spelman being the best opportunities for success from an HBCU.

Forget all of that. What is most disturbing is that ESPN and too many black news outlets still feel good all over about invitations from the White House press machine, conceding the little reach that we have to advance the administration’s empty rhetoric on race. In its final weeks, the administration insists that the public can be convinced that Obama is a different man than what his actions have proven over eight years.

A white cop arrests Henry Louis Gates for trying to enter his own home, and gets an invitation to the White House for beer. Colin Kaepernick takes a knee to protest police lynchings of black people, and Obama plays the fence on social protest and military support, just two months after playing the fence on Black Lives Matter and the police in his first televised town hall meeting.

The Undefeated’s mantra is ‘not conventional, never boring.’ This town hall will likely be more of the same; a disgraceful, disappointing tally in the loss column for folks who so desperately hoped for a black hero in the White House.