I am not a constitutional scholar, but as a citizen, with profound respect and appreciation for our Constitution, and as a proud graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), I was astounded that the President of the United States, after inviting HBCU presidents to the oval office for a Black History Month photo-op, would, now, threaten the federal funding to these institutions on the grounds that because they are historically known for admitting and training African American students that providing federal funds to these institutions is unconstitutional.
Rather than a photo for Black History Month, perhaps the President and his Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, really needed a historical tutorial on the reason for the existence of HBCUs and their role not only in Black life, but the broader communities that they serve.
HBCUs are a coalition of various colleges and universities some established before the end of slavery, and all created before 1964, with the sole purpose to provide quality educational opportunities for “Negroes” without access to other institutions of higher learning. These institutions have provided a rich history, graduating leaders and scholars that include Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., General Collin Powell, Oprah, Thurgood Marshall, Kathleen Johnson, and many, many others. More importantly, these colleges and universities continue to graduate, each year, thousands of students who are well-trained educators, engineers, business leaders, technology experts, lawyers, ministers, and medical professionals.
HBCUs, like their traditional white counterparts are not only essential to our nation's economy, but represent the very foundation of our Constitution – the inaugural paragraph of the Declaration of Independence undergirds this point, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Furthermore, suggesting that the Fifth Amendment and the “Due Process Clause” would be used as the government’s reasoning to consider defunding HBCUs seems to be a stretch of the reading of the clause, and begins a precedent that, in my view, creates a slippery slope.
Despite the very complicated history of African Americans in America, I argue that the Constitution and all of its rights and privileges, applies to all of our citizens and the schools that educate them, including historically black colleges and universities.
The fact is that the 25-year-old program that the President called out, is used to finance critical infrastructure and construction projects on HBCU campuses. But, by suggesting that this program may have “run afoul” of the Constitution because it allocates “benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender” is not only off-putting, it’s simply not true that HBCUs only accept and educate African American students.
Moreover, being racially identifiable does not imply exclusion. In fact, I would argue that even the most distinguished universities, Yale, Harvard, UPenn, and the University of North Carolina are, too, racially recognizable - these major universities were historically all white and today remain, majority white. That does not mean that they or their historically black counterparts discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion.
The fact is that all HBCU's have integrated student bodies and faculties. According to a 2014 Time magazine article, it was noted that a number of HBCUs are becoming increasingly more diverse – in many cases, more white. For example, 82% of the students at West Virginia’s Bluefield State College are white, and at Lincoln University in Missouri, African-Americans account for 40% of enrollment. Clearly not all HBCUs are "vestiges of segregation,” but are welcoming, thriving, and yes, even some struggling institutions that work to ensure that all who come are educated for today's opportunities and challenges.
Hopefully, the President and his close-knit set of advisors will take the opportunity to make the President’s actions clear, and focus on the value of HBCUs that train some of the world’s brightest minds from all walks of life and all corners of our great country. Moreover, HBCUs along with other colleges and universities prepare students for the future, and inhibiting that progress is only a step backward, and a contradiction to the President’s campaign pledge.