This past week, President Trump invited the leadership from the nation’s 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to the White House in an effort to outdo President Obama’s troubled record with the institutions. Understandably, his invitation provoked dual reactions within the black community. One urging leaders to decline, and another with a skeptical yet optimistic stance.
Today as proponents of HBCU's dissect the impact of the meeting, many of the “don’t go” crowd revel in a small sense of “I told you so”. However, I find that many in this camp lack key context and have missed the most vital point of the entire ordeal. The leaders of these great institutions have always and must continue to show up to advocate on behalf of their mission, no matter who is at the table. These institutions cannot afford to reject potential assistance from the President of The United States, or even worse, create an enemy in the nation’s highest office by snubbing him.
To discuss the recent meeting with HBCU leadership, you have to first understand the political landscape in which these universities exist. The majority of black colleges are public and most of them operate in red states where they have always had to walk a fine line of politics and purpose. In some of the most racially turbulent places, these colleges have served as true safe spaces for black excellence, spaces that also top the list in producing black professionals in fields such as STEM and medicine. Even more, recent studies reveal that these HBCUs are providing more socio-economic mobility for black students than white colleges.
Despite or because of their impact, these spaces also become targets for political manipulation. For example, we can look to an ongoing lawsuit in Maryland where several HBCUs have sued the state for allowing public white institutions to duplicate unique programs that black colleges boast -- an act that is an aggressive way to attack a school’s value offering. So, in addition to being leaders in cultivating black success, these universities also have to play the political chess of their respective states and at the federal level.
In fact, if the Presidents' of these HBCU's agreed to collectively not show up to this meeting, they would have appeased the Trump protesters but risked making themselves even larger targets in the long run. Unfortunately, Trump opponents do not truly care about the sustainability of black colleges; instead, they have found themselves projecting their personal protests onto colleges who have a lot more to lose. To ask these leaders not to accept Trump’s invitation is to ask them to gamble with the economic ladder for many low-income black communities. So, though your “Dump Trump” rhetoric is a popular cause, it is not the battle that black colleges can lead on your behalf. There are too many lives depending on them.
To the discontent of pseudo advocates, black colleges have to be more tactical in how they address politics. Like that of black businesses, this has and will always be a long-term political game for HBCUs and the communities they serve.
To give my own adaptation of the political evergreen: black colleges have no permanent friends or no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.