If you were dying of thirst and some stranger rolled up to give you a tall glass of water, how would you feel about it?
What if the person giving you the water hated Mexicans, Muslims, lesbians, gays, transgendered or gender noncorming children, black protesters, black people who vote, women, married women who resist genital grabbing men, white women who think for themselves, people who read, the media, and Rosie O’Donnell?
Such is the life of presidents leading America’s historically black colleges and universities recently invited to the White House. They are fighting for the survival of their institutions, often alone, and now they are suffering indignant Twitter challenges to their integrity because they met with Donald Trump.
“You’ve been used for a photo opp” many of the Twitter millennials - and some older people who act like Twitter millennials - are saying.
If you aren’t clear, Twitter millennials are always intellectually on point, morally pure, and insufferably “woke." Especially the lucky few that make it through college (often through HBCUs) only to travel the country Snapchatting their picture-perfect meals while ignoring email soliciting contributions to the colleges they rep on t-shirts.
If only their activism was focused, practical, and aligned with the fight HBCU presidents are having to keep the lights on for a 150 year tradition of black self-determination in education.
University of Pennsylvania’s Marybeth Gassman, quoted in the Business Insider, says “HBCUs often struggle because they have fewer resources than other colleges — typically due to lower endowments and less money coming in from alumni giving.”
The same article points to inequitable funding from government, citing a piece by Donald Mitchell, Jr comparing ”the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill's $15,700 in state funding per student” versus “North Carolina A&T University's $7,800 in state funding per student.
It's doubtful that Trump found Jesus on this issue for himself. Realty television celebrity (and ordained pastor) Omarosa Manigault, herself an alum of Howard University, is suspected to be the point of origin for his calculating interest in throwing a bone to black education.
According to HBCU Digest the result will be an executive order promising increased support for HBSCUs, one that bills itself as “among the most progressive partnerships between the White House and HBCUs in decades."
It's going to be huuuuge.
I'm not so sure, but I'm happy to see “White House Initiative on HBCUs” might move from out of the Department of Education’s basement and into the actual White House.
Ironically, and painfully, this showy display of Trump's love for black colleges is in bizarre contrast to eight years of President Obama’s record.
HBCU presidents have complained for almost a decade that the needs of their institutions, and their students, were not only neglected by the White House, but in some cases they were harmed.
Black college students and HBCUs were disproportionately impacted by the Obama administration’s changes to the time span students could use Pell Grants, and his stricter guidelines for government-backed student loans to low-income families.
Those defending Obama's record will point out he increased funds for HBCU students by $1 billion. That's true and you should be thankful for it.
Critics, though, will remind you that it wasn't all perfect. During the same time, our Ivy League educated “first black president” often slid into discomforting paternalism and reminded his incredibly loyal black voters that he was the president of America, not black America. He scolded us about being better parents; told us to stop complaining, pull up our pants, take off our slippers, and get to work – for him.
We obliged like good soldiers even if it felt like a slap to our esteem. It’s what we do.
Nobody felt the agglomeration of that relationship more than HBCU leaders who never received the support you might expect from a president that enjoyed nearly universal black support.
Now HBCU leaders must pivot and make the best of yet another intricate relationship, this time with an incomparably problematic president who offers thirsty people water for political reasons (see Nixon's overture to black capitalism for a parallel).
If I were leading a historically black college and I was asked to attend a meeting with the highest elected official on planet Earth, I would go and be there early. I would resist lazy activism or childish displays of oppositional defiance that promise no gains for my constituents. I would stubbornly keep the main thing (producing more black college graduates), the main thing (producing more black college graduates!!!).
Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, we must stay focused on our permanent interests, and the survival of black schools is definitely one of those interests.
If you want a detailed list of tangible policy aims to bolster HBCUs and their students, the UNCF (as always) has you covered. Their memo to President-elect Donald Trump from December 2016 details 10 actionable goals we all should support.
If all you want to do is be Twitter-famous for talking nonsense about people who are doing more than you increase the number of educated black people, no one can help you.
All I can tell you is that if Twitter had been active when Booker T. Washington was building black educational institutions more than a century ago - the institutions that created successive waves of middle class black intellectuals, professionals, and yes, Twitter activists - we might not have HBCUs today.
Luckily we have always had leaders that knew how to keep their eyes on the prize. Sometimes you just have to drink the unholy water and pray your people will have some grace about your sacrifices.