Okay. So. Trump assembles the HBCU presidents, Conway acts like she doesn’t have any home training, and then, today, beloved civil rights icon Jeff Sessions gives a Black History Month speech, Republican donor Betsy DeVos toasts HBCUs as bastions of the school choice movement, and Donald J. Trump signs an executive order on those very same historically black colleges and universities.
What a way to end Black History Month.
Let’s take ‘em one at a time.
Jeff Sessions, our attorney general, gathered Justice Department officials today to pay tribute to the Justice Department’s role in the civil rights movement. He did not address criticisms leveled at him by civil rights heroes, but according to Mother Jones, did say, “a huge part of that progress was a direct result of the dedicated and principled work of this Department of Justice.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that Sessions also told state attorney generals today that he will be putting an end to DOJ civil rights investigations into local police departments, stating, “We need to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness, and I’m afraid we have done some of that. So we’re going to pull back on this.”
Sessions further said that the DOJ will be taking a tougher stance on anyone who commits a crime with a gun, condemning previous approaches as too forgiving, asserting that criminals will rethink their ways “if they know they’re going to get popped, they’re going to federal court, they’ll get five years and probably get sent off” to federal prison. Federal prisons that have been newly re-privatized at that.
All that sounds very promising.
Now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said yesterday that HBCUs were “pioneers when it comes to school choice.” This did not go over well. DeVos is a charter school champion; school choice is her signature issue. Above and beyond not understanding how HBCUs came to be, the statement seemed to suggest that DeVos wasn’t completely sure what school choice actually means.
Today, in a luncheon with many of the HBCU presidents present when Kellyanne Conway put her feet on the couch, DeVos worked to walk back her statements, first by educating (since she's the secretary of that) learned black men and women about Mary McLeod Bethune, and then by saying, “HBCUs have always been more than simply institutions of higher learning. You have long represented a challenge to the status quo, starting by providing a necessary opportunity to African Americans following the Civil War.”
Having learned from her boss that the best way to communicate complex ideas is to take to Twitter, DeVos followed her remarks by sending out the following tweets:
#HBCUs are such an important piece of the fabric of American history—one that encompasses some of our nation's greatest citizens.— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) February 28, 2017
Providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of #HBCUs.— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) February 28, 2017
But your history was born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) February 28, 2017
The second time is the charm, as they say.
And then of course, the main event: after teasing it for a day and a half, Donald Trump signed his landmark HBCU executive order.
MSNBC reported that surrounded by HBCU presidents, Trump called the signing of the order, “a very important moment and a moment that means a great deal to me.”
During his remarks, the president asserted, “Historically black colleges and universities are incredibly important institutions woven into the fabric of our history just about like no other; church is very important right?”
Trump then told a black man standing near the rear of the crowd to come over, and shook his hand, calling him, “My defender.”
After that odd aside — praise Jesus — Trump returned to talking about HBCUs and how education is key to total equality, calling HBCUs “pillars of the African American community for more than 150 years — amazing job” and “America at its absolute best.”
The executive order itself focuses on the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, an outgrowth of a 1980 executive order signed by President Jimmy Carter that appropriated federal funds for HBCUs. Under Ronald Reagan, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities was placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education.
Although the White House has yet to release the official text of the order, a copy leaked to journalist Lauren Victoria shows that Trump has moved the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities back under the aegis of the White House.
According to the order, an unnamed executive director will be the president’s direct liaison to the Initiative. The new executive director will be charged with increasing the role of the private sector in the technological, developmental, and financial dealings of America’s HBCUs.
The Initiative has also been ordered to “improve the relationship between the Federal Government and HBCUs.” This improvement plan includes: an annual White House summit on HBCUs, creating a “”cradle-to-college” pipeline,” promoting academic research, and sharing “administrative and programmic best practices.”
And there you have it — the explosive finale of Donald Trump’s Black History Month spectacular.
To hear the president tell it, though, despite February being over, he won’t be forgetting about America’s black citizens. He concluded one section of his remarks at today’s signing ceremony by solemnly swearing that he — and presumably all the black people surrounding him — would be “working together to create a better future for African Americans and universities and colleges and everything that is African American.“