HBCUs and Obama: Strangers in the Silhouette of Blackness

Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor today writes in the Washington Post on one of the last chapters of President Barack Obama’s legacy with historically black colleges and universities. This time, it is the omission of HBCU students from his entire catalog of state of the union addresses, and his stiff arm of HBCU culture over the last seven years,

As the president spoke to cement his legacy, there was scant reference to a constituency he courted intensely to keep his job. Headlines in 2012 across black media announced, “Obama campaign focuses on black vote, targets HBCUs,” as his campaign coordinated over 40 visits to HBCU campuses. Extensive voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts helped black voter turnout surpass white turnout for the first time in history. In short, when the president needed to reach his base, black colleges responded.

So as I reflected on the four big questions President Obama posed for the next president during his SOTU address, I thought of one for him: Do black colleges matter?

The quiet reading on our first black president is not that he ignores black people or black issues, but that he recognizes them within a context commonly driven by affluence and white privilege. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton before him, Obama is expertly talented at crafting connections with signs and symbols of black pride and perseverance, but also, at avoiding honest acknowledgment and remedy of the social threads which tangle and choke opportunities for black prosperity.

Obama can deal easily in the painful elements of blackness which can be universally understood by everyone. No one wants to be sick and decide between medical expenses and mortgage. No one wants to discover that 18 years of hard work and savings barely equals to one year of college tuition, and no one wants their child shot and left to die in a street in cold blood.

And so his legacy on black engagement and empowerment is tethered to health care, education reform and gun control — things which he delivered not as pro-black policy, but anti-poverty initiatives. When it comes to addressing specific and alarming disparities for black Americans in economic potential, public health, political influence and higher education, Obama and the team around him in the White House fortifies the cultural stockade to avoid what they all deem as unnecessary conflict with conservative legislators and power brokers.

Obama is careful not to give opponents any ammo to knock him for being too pro-black. This is why he can host Wale’ and Kendrick Lamar in the White House to discuss theoretical framework for black social and cultural change, but never extend the same invitation to HBCU presidents or students. It is more than him just being more comfortable with rappers, those perceived voices who simultaneously uncover black despair and ambitions of self-made success; this is about who he finds to be most relatable, reliable and useful for public conversation on black progress.

He genuinely just doesn’t want to go there on matters of substance when it comes to race, because complex cultural matters typically require big finances to fix. Banks did not set rules for predatory lending and consumer business, but the culture which allowed it became too pervasive to ignore without federal intervention. Terrorism is not the sole enemy of America, but the culture borne out of September 11 and leagues of caskets returning from combat zones requires a hefty American check for military, and for allies around the world to remain on our side.

America’s racial wars are not driving the country towards financial bankruptcy, and aren’t giving the impression of imminent danger on domestic soil, so Obama steers clear of addressing the nation’s oldest, most-long standing moral issue. And that’s how he is able to be the keynote speaker for Morehouse College’s commencement, only to tell the best and the brightest of our men to avoid cynicism, to be responsible fathers, and to stop looking for excuses.

This is why he can make dozens of stops at HBCUs during his campaign seasons, only for thousands of the same students who cheered and cried for the symbolism of his candidacy to be kicked out of school following a sudden, devastating change in federal loan programs.

This is why he has never met with his advisory board on HBCUs, has never attended the Department of Education’s annual HBCU national conference, and even told members of the federal Congressional Black Caucus to ‘stop complaining and tell HBCUs to get their graduation rates up’ in response to their appeals for equity.

This is why it is no coincidence that Saint Paul’s College, Knoxville College and Barber Scotia College, all of which have struggled with financial hardship for decades, have permanently or temporarily closed their doors in just the last three years.

Obama can deal with black struggle and black excellence — but very little in between. HBCUs, by their nature, live at the margins of both realities. They operate on the verges of financial crisis and cultural breakthrough every single day; empowering students and faculty to do and to give more in spite of society’s push for them to disappear into a post-racial oblivion. And to their credit, students and faculty deliver in spite of the emerging social norms which make their commitment and productivity seem anonymous, racially-tinged and socially irrelevant.

Perhaps today’s candidates will learn from Obama’s arm-length engagement with black colleges and the black people they serve. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are attempting to atone for Obama’s sins in their campaigns, and may find themselves in different cultural space to actually make and keep a few promises which may benefit HBCUs.

But when we think about legacy, and the things for which Obama will be remembered, black folks with intimate ties to HBCUs will remember the president as a biased referee in Black America’s fight against historic inequities and cultures which propagate it. Through his perceived vision of wasted negro potential, and without regard for forces which shape it, Obama decided early and purposefully that HBCUs were little more than a tool by which to covertly deliver subliminal messages of “yeah we’re black, but I got mine and ya’ll better work hard to get yours.” Gays and lesbians, Hispanics, refugees and lethargic democrats, and racist republicans didn’t receive those messages as harshly as our communities did, but that’s because he never felt any real threat of consequence for not treating us fairly.

That was our fault, and always will be.

So here’s hoping that the next round of voting, the next attempts at high-level advocacy and equity for black colleges, yields a better result than the skin-deep aspirations we dreamed for the Obama White House. Either that, or we all take up rapping as a new hobby.