Flames of Protest Should Spark Fire for HBCU Advocacy, Productivity

Coppin State University, a public HBCU just a block away from ground zero of the civil unrest that has captivated a nation, is the largest employer, largest research hub, largest cultural outlet and represents the fastest growing part of west Baltimore with construction and community outreach - all in benefit to black residents.

And yet, for all of the analysis of how poverty, political imbalance and economics melds to create a burning metropolitan district, no one has talked about Coppin as the answer to these issues at fundamental, interpersonal levels of intervention and development. 

In fact, no one is talking about how Coppin, along with Maryland's three other historically black colleges, are in federal mediation over how the state of Maryland violated the U.S. constitution and operated a "separate but unequal" system of higher education for black and white students.

By footsteps and by fire, we remember Freddie Gray. But we pay no attention to the institutions best equipped to advocate for more reasonable policing culture, but more importantly, a culture which may have prevented Freddie Gray from racking up a list of drug and weapons offenses, which may have led him by instinct or self-preservation, to inexplicably run from the police in the first place.

For three years, Coppin State officials have lobbied to relocate sections of Baltimore City's police academy to the campus, to facilitate comprehensive training in cultural sensitivity, community policing and race relations. 

And why isn't it there?

Mortimer H. Neufville, president of Coppin State, said that the university fulfills an educational mission in the community and provides other support and services to its neighbors, including hosting a charter high school on its campus. Mr. Neufville added that he had made a proposal to the City of Baltimore to hold part of its police-academy training on the campus. The arrangement, which is still under consideration by the city, would help foster a positive relationship early on between police officers and the citizens they will serve, he said.

But he also noted that Coppin State has limited resources. "How much more can we do?" he said.

Citizens are moved and wounded by the return of Jim Crow-like police violence against black men, women and children, but have yet to adopt the proper response beyond the fallible approach of simply calling attention to violence and inequity as the issues instead of signs of larger problems.

If Black folks aren't going to take it anymore, and I mean, really aren't going to take it anymore, then we must stop fighting the symptoms of injustice within a broken system and focus upon solidarity and self-sufficiency. We are training up a generation of young people who are well-trained in civil rights movement rhetoric, but clueless into the resources and strategies the movement helped to yield. 

Black colleges and universities break individual and collective dependency upon broken, inequitable systems. They inspire graduates to work and serve as antibodies in black communities infected by apathy, distrust and rage. 

Alumni from several HBCUs, like the ones in Maryland, are trying to take a more aggressive approach in self-earned justice. They are preparing to sue state governments nationwide for billions of dollars in remedy for discrimination and neglect against their publicly-funded historically black colleges and universities. 

For the last 15 years, alumni and stakeholders throughout the south have been gathering data, consulting with legal experts and building momentum on the prospects of suing states on the grounds of program duplication, underfunding and neglect of HBCUs. Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor pricked the nation's attention when he suggested suing the Obama Administration for its dismantling of the Pell Grant and PLUS Loan eligibility standards which, we now know, forced all 105 HBCUs to lose an average of nearly 100 students per campus in 2012.

Legislators and higher ed officials in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Maryland will wish they had not played political games with black folks on the delicate terms of education and upward mobility, especially since they had the benefit of several landmark cases from which they could have learned how to make education more accessible to all citizens. Financially and politically, this is a storm that will add to the nation's growing awareness of racial animosity and inequality, even in a 'post-racial' America.

Black institutions matter, because they shape and enhance black lives, which  matter most. Directly, HBCUs offer opportunity where none typically exists for students and families seeking higher education. Indirectly, they provide the jobs, economic infusion and cultural identity that black folks seek as key factors in what we define as fulfilling and productive life. 

And that means that HBCUs must be more accountable for the output they create in support of black communities. Faculty must be more diligent about the research they produce which offers proof of the racial inequities in the nation, while simultaneously illustrating the capacity and intelligence of black folks in a wide range of disciplines. They must show how black communities empower state and country - through the development of employees, consumers and stakeholders. They are the ones who must make connections between economics, public health, political power and broken family structures.

What does data say about earning potential for children of single-parent homes? What are the graduation rates of students in proximity to community centers versus those far away from them? What are the qualitative narratives of drug dealers and addicts in communities? What is the average commute of the working class, and how does this translate to child care, or extra-curricular participation of students? 

These are the answers HBCU faculty must be eager to seek and share with communities - because all of these questions have direct connections with those students who chose to throw stones and bottles at police, and those who did not.

HBCU students must become more politically and socially engaged in their communities, to be the energy and the voices of the powerless and advocates for fair treatment. They are the ones who, while free of student debt and balancing a mortgage, must use their voices and talents to help the underserved mobilize for resources and respect. 

Students are the ones who should not be asking white police officers to stop killing us, but asking black communities to start living out of sight and mind of racist individuals and systems. 

We cannot have it both ways; we cannot pelt police with stones and bricks and let gang members who murder and poison within our communities go without threat. We cannot let symptoms of a larger, more sinister problem within our own gates pale behind what's wrong about the treatment we receive from those outside of our villages. 

If black institutions don't matter, it won't be long before the black lives they were designed to serve also fall into the abyss of perceived irrelevance.