HBCU Graduates Are Finally Getting the Recognition That We Deserve
We’ve always been vanguards of excellence, and it didn’t start with VP-elect Kamala Harris
Watching the vote counts crawl in during the 2020 election cycle, many of us lived, breathed, talked, and posted about each new vote total from counties, cities, and towns in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. As the days went on, there were first murmurs and then full-on conversations about the fact that graduates of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were bringing the fight to Republicans.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman and person of African and/or Asian descent to win the office, attended Howard University. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose city looks to be on track to flip the state of Georgia blue, graduated from Florida A&M. Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who worked in coalition with other organizers to register over 800,000 new voters, graduated from Spelman College. Missouri’s newest congressperson, Black Lives Matter activist, and rising Democratic star Cori Bush attended Harris-Stowe State University. Morehouse College’s own Raphael Warnock, running for one of the two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs in Georgia, earned enough votes to force a January runoff election that could help deliver the Senate to Democrats. All of this took place as Princeton University professor and department chair Eddie Glaude, a Morehouse man, dissected results for MSNBC.
I am a graduate of Spelman, and so, along with the particular pride HBCU grads feel when one of our number shines, I knew an often repeated and dismissive “corrective” was coming and that it would be something along the lines of “That’s great and all, but HBCUs are not the real world.”
This statement is sometimes offered as a way to say Black success requires predominantly White educational institutions or, at other times, to simply dismiss the 21st-century importance of HBCUs. In either case, it is as perplexing a proposition to me as it is a truthful one. HBCUs aren’t our current real world, and that’s a good thing.
In a country where Black people so often have to fight for the right to be, live, and breathe, HBCUs start from the proposition that Black life matters. They affirm the complexities of Black cultures, develop Black intellect, assume Black competence, and can count past one in regard to the number of Black professors a department might need. They welcome and value Black people, all kinds of Black people. They most certainly do not represent the “real world,” but that is actually the whole point of their existence.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones wrote in a 2015 article for the New York Times Magazine about Xavier University in Louisiana, “While many colleges were started to groom the children of the nation’s elite, the goal of historically black colleges has always been to pull up through education the nation’s most marginalized — first the children of former slaves, then the children of sharecroppers and maids and today the children of America’s still separate and unequal K-12 educational system.”
Today, there are over 100 schools federally recognized as HBCUs. To achieve this designation, colleges had to have opened before Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination in all public facilities and institutions. They must have also been specifically founded to educate Black Americans, though today, students of any race may attend, and in some of these institutions, up to a quarter of the students might identify as non-Black.
Though HBCUs are just 3% of all colleges, they award 16% of the bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students in the United States. In the 1990s, data collected by the U.S. Department of Education showed that HBCUs trained three-fourths of Black people with a doctoral degree, three-fourths of all Black officers in the armed forces, four-fifths of all Black federal judges, three-fourths of all Black members of Congress, and 50% of Black faculty in predominantly White research universities.
Today, HBCUs lead in awarding baccalaureate degrees to Black students in the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. In a 2008 survey, the National Science Foundation ranked my alma mater, Spelman College, as one of the top undergraduate institutions attended by women who went on to receive PhDs in STEM disciplines, and Morehouse was a top producer of Black men who went on to earn PhDs in STEM fields. Moreover, one-third of all Black students in STEM fields who have earned doctorates graduated with bachelor’s degrees from an HBCU. Obviously, such schools have been and remain successful, relevant, and useful.
Far too frequently, I have had conversations with Black student leaders who have spent physical, emotional, and psychic energy fighting, organizing, struggling, and protesting for their school to demonstrate that Black students are wanted and valued.
Over the past two decades, I have taught in the “real world” of a few different Ivy League institutions where the enrollment of Black students has consistently hovered between 5% and 6%. In these institutions, there is always a struggle to recruit, train, and retain Black students in STEM and other fields. Far too frequently, I have had conversations with Black student leaders who have spent physical, emotional, and psychic energy fighting, organizing, struggling, and protesting for their school to demonstrate that Black students are wanted and valued. They often share that their schoolwork has suffered. Some years, the calls and protests these students lead are louder and more organized, and other years, they are quiet and focused. In either case, year after year and decade after decade, the asks are similar: Hire Black faculty, hire Black mental health personnel and administrators, admit more Black students, and create meaningful consequences for faculty who belittle, fail, insult, and aggress those who look like them.
This reality often leads me to reflect on the words of the late Toni Morrison:
The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
I know that Black students on predominantly White campuses are regularly distracted in these precise ways. As often as not, the fight changes them more than they significantly change the institution.
Finally, HBCUs are particularly important for Black students who did not grow up in majority Black countries. Where else will such students have the chance to see Black people in positions of authority and watch them wield power and learn from people who look like them how, how not, and when to do so? For Black people raised in a nation where those with white skin hold a majority of top positions in education, business, and politics, Black colleges and universities offer the possibility of a particular kind of optical training ground in politics.
This election season, what the success of HBCU graduates showed us is what progress can look like when, if even just for a few years, ambitious young Black people have the space and time to experience the luxuries of affirmation, care, and belonging. This may not be “the real world,” but it is a universe that matters.