By William A. Foster, IV
You go busting’ your fist against a stone wall. You’re not usin’ your brain. That’s what the white man wants you to do. Look at you, what makes you ashamed of being black? – Excerpt from White Manz World by Tupac Shakur
Kwame Nkrumah – HBCU Graduate, Pan-Africanist, & 1st President of Ghana
It seems more and more the desperation of HBCUs to survive and show they are “American” makes them want to distance themselves or even abandon our mission. That mission is to be part of the ecosystem that increases the institutional power of social, economic, and political assets for African America. Instead, more than a few are mimicking European American colleges or following the advice of those at European American colleges who have all the answers for how to fix HBCUs. Oddly, none of those “fixes” involve relinquishing the resources that have created the disproportionate institutional inequity between our communities. However, I do not expect them to provide those kind of answers. Their answers and solutions are not the ones that sadden me. It is the leadership at many HBCUs that saddens me most. It often feels that African America more than any other group ignore the rules of engagement – the rules of war (for resources). I often tell friends that if this was a sporting field, African Americans are the group that spends all of its time chasing other groups around the field trying to remind the other groups of the rules and never scoring a single point. We are so focused on getting everyone to play by the perceived rules that we forget to actually score and forgetting that whoever has the most points (power) makes the rules and those rules are fluid (and sometimes they are just there to keep us preoccupied it seems).
Recently, a piece in the New York Times talked about how HBCUs (and African American institutions in general) paid the price for African American “equality”. Unfortunately, what we have perceived as equality has been nothing more than an illusion. There has been no American dream, just a never ending nightmare. Every social, economic, and political statistic you can use as a measurement finds us worse off after this achieved “equality”. Yet, our answer continuously is to head down a path that has shown us without a doubt that it is not working. Our families are in disarray, land ownership at an all-time low, 50 percent of African American owned banks have disappeared over the past twenty years, predatory lending and payday loans rampant, and HBCUs have seen the HWCU/HBCU endowment gap grow from 46:1 to a staggering 103:1 in the past twenty years as well. Is this progress?
Power comes when a group’s ecosystem is strongly interlocked and circulating the assets within it while accumulating assets of other groups along the way. To this point, I have yet to get an answer if any HBCUs bank with African American owned banks. My guess – ZERO. HBCUs need to understand they are part of an African American ecosystem, not independent of it. They must do things that increase our social, economic, and political circulation of our other institutions within the ecosystem. We educate our students only to send them right back into someone else’s ecosystem to benefit. This is apparent in that under 6 percent of African Americans work for African American owned businesses. Socially, why do we not play the African American national anthem? Economically, why do we not bank with African American owned banks? Politically, why do we not have a plan in place to make sure HBCU alums are elected on the state level up to governor where state funding truly impacts us.
We know one of the key problems facing HBCUs is lack of African Americans graduating from high school. The high school graduation rate is the second lowest among all groups in the country, only Native Americans are worse off. Our core demographic is not even graduating at a clip that allows them to enter our institutions. Instead of embracing the challenge to solve this, we want to abandon it for the sake of looking like everyone else? We took in others before others ever thought about taking us. We do not have anything to prove in our acceptance of others, but we do have more to prove that we can be the bearers of solving institutional issues that face African America and the African Diaspora. It begins to beg the question of whether we understand the purpose of institutions to a group’s ability to accumulate power. Note, I said power not acceptance.
If we truly believe moving toward the mimic of other institutions and not defining our own path is sound strategy, then I suspect a good deal of our institutions will be lost. This is because if we are trying to be like them and have nothing unique to offer, then all things being equal, students will go to the better school based on finances and social standing of the overall society. A choice we are sure to lose nine out of ten times. The thing that we actually have going for us is our heritage and catering to that heritage. HWCUs have not abandoned their core demographic no matter how many African American athletes they let in or pictures they put up showing one African American amongst a sea of others as “diversity”. They get it, but when will we? I truly hope before it is too late.