You mostly hear about it in personal anecdotes shared among faculty and alumni. Every so often, a feature sneaks out and grabs the nation’s attention, and these days, you’ll typically find them in stories about black people doing extraordinary work as scientists and scientific researchers.
HBCU excellence is all around us, quietly shaping black communities through academics, research and outreach. But because this excellence isn’t mass-produced, or isn’t being sold by a big time PR agency to major networks and newspapers, people tend to think that our stories and our successes are not as seismic as or as innovative as the urban successes delivered by white people or predominantly white institutions.
Take a recent New York Times profile of Thread, a Baltimore-based non-profit organization where working professionals commit to form a network of support around disadvantaged youth in Baltimore City; 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for up to 10 years.
The Thread concept has been in existence for years at historically black colleges, but is not managed under a non-profit umbrella. It’s an idea carried out by tens of thousands of independent cultural contractors who make the same pledge, the same investment, without an application or a feature in one of the world’s biggest newspapers. This network of administrators, professors, coaches, campus police officers, resident assistants, janitors and cafeteria workers supports students from underserved communities who, only by God’s grace, discovered education as a viable alternative to the common obstacles found in small town and big city alike.
So Johns Hopkins University and its graduates get to live out their ‘best of the best’ motto in Baltimore’s most vulnerable communities, and they make headlines because it’s mostly white people doing the beneficent work of saving black children and families from poverty and cultural affliction.
But a program like Southern’s Honore’ Center for Undergraduate Achievement, or Howard University Law students helping local high school students complete financial aid and college applications, or a baptist church in Northern Virginia or a festival in Harlem combining to help HBCUs collect millions in tuition revenue every year? Those won’t make the final cut for the evening news or the back page of the papers.
There are exceptions to the rule. Two days ago, the Tallahassee Democrat published three stories on research, industrial outreach, and community improvement all happening at Florida A&M University. A white writer in Charlotte covered the racial undercurrents of the CIAA by actually going to the tournament and its associated parties and events.
But in most communities, and certainly from a national perspective, it is hard to sift HBCU excellence from the pounding rhetoric of relevance and struggle. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. has a national program dedicated to enhancing awareness and support of HBCUs. Chapters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. nationwide are regionally renowned for HBCU college tours. Members of the National Association of Black Journalists have formed a national task force, largely comprised of HBCU alumni and designed to help historically black journalism schools and mass communication programs with finding resources, developing student talent, supporting campus newspapers, and monitoring mainstream coverage of HBCUs.
These are major organizations with thousands of members and millions of dollars flowing into and around them annually. NABJ commands nearly the entire brain trust of black media influence and output in the nation. Yet HBCU stakeholders know almost nothing about external initiatives to support HBCUs, and internal efforts created by HBCU leaders to improve the communities surrounding them, and their own sustainability.
HBCU successes don’t fit the typical American narrative of race relations; that is, white people helping black people to do better. This narrative will always persist in worlds outside of our HBCU orbit, but if you live within it, there’s a swelling anger that comes with knowing your community is just as engaged and active, but will never be recognized for it in a way that could actually change the narrative of poor, suffering people and our downtrodden schools.
Eight out of ten black students nationwide have to be convinced beyond all doubt that an HBCU could be a good academic fit for their lives. One out of ten HBCU alumni give to their colleges regularly, but five out of ten grads feel positively about the role of HBCUs in their professional and personal lives. These are the prominent HBCU headlines at local and national levels which influence the ways in which we think about our schools.
But do our schools counter with more aggressive marketing to parents and alumni who actually recruit students to HBCUs? Do we work to take over the media spaces where our alumni and students draw all of their news and information? The frightening answer is no. From Nielsen’s 2013 report on African American media consumption habits.
But it’s not just their purchasing behavior that’s unique. African-Americans also have distinct digital and mobile behaviors, as they spend 44 percent more time on education and career websites, and 71 percent of blacks own a smartphone, compared with 62 percent for the total U.S.
While 81 percent of blacks believe that products advertised using black media are more relevant to them, only 3 percent ($2.24 billion) of $75 billion spent on television, magazine, Internet and radio advertising was with media focused specifically on black audiences.
We assume that because our news, our brand, our successes simply aren’t big or white enough to get attention from the largest audience cross-sections, that we should try to do more to get into the media spaces owned by white folks, just to impress and convince a bigger number of black folks who clamor to consume in those spaces that their schools are legit.
And this is why buying billboard space downtown, hiring PR firms, and playing musical chairs with media relations staff on campus has depleted budgets and fractured media opportunities nationwide for black colleges with virtually no return on investment — just the satisfaction of a board member or a prominent alumnus saying how much they love the billboard.
HBCUs do tell their stories; they just aren’t selling them to the right people and in the right spaces. The sooner we figure out that trying to make the local daily newspaper or the NBC Nightly News never has, and never will bring more students to our campuses, the quicker our success stories will be able to move the narrative of HBCU value beyond urban legend status in higher ed culture.