In August 2020, as the nation convulsed at the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, a collective of more than 300 public policy analysts signed a letter called the “Think Tank Diversity Action Statement,” which criticized the lack of racial and ethnic diversity at the highest levels of Washington’s policy think tank sphere. The letter’s recommendations included changing hiring practices, increasing the number of paid internships, and making institutional diversity data more publicly accessible.
Though definitions vary, most think tanks share a common characteristic: they are laboratories in which ideas are formulated, tested, and released into the world to influence decision making. All too often, think tanks churn out ideas that have broad societal implications but are indifferent to the needs or circumstances of Black people. This dilemma sparks the question: what if the think tank infrastructure that already exists within the HBCU sector could become Black America’s nerve center for problem-solving and policy development on Black issues?
The same systemic problems that confront HBCUs overall pose particular challenges for HBCU-based think tanks: these entities are less likely to receive large research grants than think tanks such as the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers or the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California. HBCU faculty tend to teach heavier courseloads than faculty at PWIs, which makes research, publishing and think tank involvement more challenging. HBCUs are also frequently passed over by major media outlets seeking scholars who study race and equity.
Nevertheless, HBCUs benefit from a unique synergy with Black communities that PWIs can’t replicate, however they may try.
The history of HBCU think tanks also underscores how these organizations are uniquely situated to meet the challenges of our time. One of the most notable examples is the Race Relations Institute (RRI) at Fisk University. In the fall of 1942, Charles S. Johnson, who was then the chair of Fisk’s Social Sciences Department (and would become the university’s first Black president), marshaled a multi-ethnic coalition of scholars, clergy, and activists to brainstorm solutions to what Fisk alum W.E.B. Du Bois called “the problem of the color line.”
Every summer, the RRI held summits on the Fisk campus that attracted leading figures including Martin Luther King Jr. The RRI came to fruition at a critical juncture when attacks on Black soldiers by white soldiers roiled the United States military overseas, and Black people were besieged by Jim Crow laws and white supremacist violence at home.
Over time, the RRI evolved with the various iterations of the Black freedom struggle in order to best meet the social, economic, and intellectual needs of Black communities. Though the RRI closed and reopened frequently over the decades, Fisk relaunched it in November 2019 as the John R. Lewis Institute for Social Justice, named in honor of the late Congressman, civil rights icon, and Fisk alum.
Fisk is only one example of an HBCU that has led the way in research on the advancement of Black communities. Other HBCU think tanks include the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University; the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University; the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal at Kentucky State University; the Center for Public Policy at Hampton University; and the forthcoming Center for Race and Justice at Prairie View A&M University.
In spite of these systemic challenges, HBCU think tanks still hold extraordinary leverage. Over the last few months, a cascade of corporations, nonprofit organizations, and PWIs have issued statements proclaiming their belief in the idea that Black lives matter, but few of these statements have gone beyond slogans and poetic platitudes to propose concrete and actionable change for Black communities. In contrast, HBCU think tanks could serve as the entry point for the nation to begin a substantive discussion on what change could and should look like.
A solid think tank infrastructure within the HBCU sector would also benefit the students who will become the leaders of tomorrow. Through emergent digital media platforms, HBCU think tanks can disseminate crucial research through in-house scholarly publications, while also giving undergraduates and graduate students necessary internship experience.
Polls continually tell us that public confidence in institutions is at an all-time low. This is certainly true of white Americans who fear that the nation’s institutions are failing to uphold the systemic dominance of white privilege. Among Black Americans, however, the belief that institutions are important sites of social change—particularly the HBCU—is as strong now as it has ever been before. The funding opportunities are ready and willing to help HBCU think tanks scale up their work on a comprehensive level. Let’s seize the moment and make it happen.