Earlier this year, South Carolina State University became a national topic of conversation. PBS, NPR, and the New York Times each ran stories documenting the school’s financial woes and the resulting tumult. The South Carolina House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Higher Education proposed to shut down the state’s only publicly supported historically black university because the school was in debt to the tune of $11 million.
The university’s trustees voted to place the school’s president on administrative leave, alumni protested, and ultimately, South Carolina legislators did not close the school.
The fact that casual observers mostly hear about historically black colleges and universities in moments of crises adds fuel to the fire of those that wonder “Are black colleges still necessary?” More than any other, this is the question I was asked as I researched, discussed, and wrote about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
A consequence of living in a multi-cultural society that purports to value diversity is that we are suspicious of black colleges. At a fundamental level, the question, “Are black colleges still necessary?” implies that it is easy to identify the value in some colleges – those that are predominantly white – but not those that are predominantly black.
HBCUs play a critical role in the production of highly educated, successful black Americans. Though they account for a relatively small proportion (3%) of U.S. colleges and universities, roughly 40 percent of blacks earning science, technology, engineering, and math degrees do so at black colleges. Eighty-five percent of black medical doctors attend a black college at some point in their educational career. Forty percent of black doctoral degree holders earned their bachelor’s degree at a black college. These statistics beg the question of why it is so difficult to conceive of HBCUs as prestigious entities worthy of the same level of respect and accord we so easily dole out to so called “mainstream” or predominantly white colleges.
Part of the suspicion that some have about black colleges stems from concerns, however misplaced, that HBCUs handicap their students in some critical way that hinders future success. After all, upon graduation, HBCU students enter a workforce that is global in nature and racially diverse. Many who question the necessity of black colleges fear that HBCUs cannot truly prepare students for this reality. Interestingly, the same concerns do not appear to hold for predominantly white colleges.
That we do not question whether college settings with small to negligible percentages of racial minority students handicaps future prospects suggests that at a deeper level, the suspicion of black colleges reflects the tendency to undervalue predominantly black settings more generally. Sociological research shows that onlookers perceive predominantly black settings as violent, disorderly, and impoverished regardless of their actual state. As a result, questioning the necessity of HBCUs becomes a reflex, a seemingly natural reaction to a yet another predominantly black space.
As I wrote In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt, I came to understand that questioning the necessity of HBCUs was deeply connected with one’s ability to accord value to the black experience and the types of organizations that cultivate and nurture it. Giving value to such organizations is no easy feat, as American society all but requires us to belittle these settings. When we think of racial inequality and its effects we typically, and rightfully so, focus on people. The racial hierarchy within the United States privileges whiteness and much of the research on inequality concentrates on identifying how the preference for whiteness deleteriously impacts black Americans.
A substantial body of research shows that relative to whites, black Americans have lower educational attainment and wages, are confined to less desirable neighborhoods, and receive less adequate health care. In short, “blackness” stigmatizes people and systematically erodes their opportunities. Yet, recognizing that “blackness” stigmatizes settings in much the same way as it does individuals is key to understanding why people question the necessity of HBCUs.
The premium placed upon whiteness – and consequently predominantly white educational settings – demands that we as a society diminish the contributions of HBCUs. In much the same way that black neighborhoods must be worse than white ones, HBCUs must be understood as inferior to and less than predominantly white colleges – even if this is not objectively true. To suggest otherwise is an explicit challenge to a racial hierarchy that privileges whiteness.
As a society, we support what we value. We donate money to and urge policy makers to protect the organizations we feel are worthwhile. The systematic underfunding of HBCUs was par for the course during de jure segregation. Southern state legislative bodies routinely diverted money away from black colleges leaving the schools to operate on razor-thin budgets. No matter how much debt a school like South Carolina State University encountered during de jure segregation, few legislators would have called for its closure because the presence HBCUs allowed Americans to maintain the fiction of separate, but equal educational opportunities for black and white students.
Today, people question the necessity of black colleges and elected officials can call for their closure because people mistakenly believe that HBCUs lack a purpose now that black students can attend predominantly white colleges. It is hard for those who question the need for black colleges to imagine that when presented with the choice between a predominantly white or black higher education setting, a core group of students will continue to choose an HBCU. These students are not misinformed. Instead, they are acutely aware of the successful track record that HBCUs have with regard to educating black students all while providing a welcoming environment that fosters community and personal growth.
It is hard for many to imagine that predominantly black educational settings are inherently valuable and contribute to the American landscape in ways that predominantly white ones simply do not.
We must learn to value HBCUs properly. For more 160 years, these schools have perfected their craft. One-quarter of black Americans with a college degree, earn this degree at an HBCU. We cannot afford to question the necessity and relevance of institutions that have as positive and disproportionate effects on black higher education as HBCUs do. Instead, we must constantly question the ways in which racial inequality encourages us to deny black colleges the prestige they have earned.
Melissa E. Wooten is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her book, In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt (SUNY) will be out in July 2015.