Why We Should Retire the HBCU vs. PWI Debate

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Recent events at University of Missouri have sparked national conversation and action in response to racism on college campuses. Previously, we saw UCLA Law and Harvard students express their distress, and now Twitter and Facebook users have created #BlackOnCampus to do the same. Students have also opened a conversation we've seen one too many times: Are black students better off attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or predominantly white institutions (PWIs)?

For the HBCU vs. PWI debate to resurface at this time of racial turmoil is utterly ridiculous. It is a conversation that only serves to divide the black community, is always masked in a call for solidarity or unity, and conveniently arises when pertinent issues plaguing black people are being discussed. Let's examine why the HBCU vs. PWI debate should be retired immediately.

1) You Can't Hide from Racism
One of the major suggestions for black students when dealing with racism is, in fact, not to deal with it at all by making the choice to attend an HBCU instead of a PWI. As if in a cheesy infomercial, "Yes, friends, now you can conveniently avoid racism by avoiding white people everywhere! Attend your choice of HBCU today!" Because that worked out so well for our ancestors throughout history and that's what they would agree with. No, ma'am. That argument is not only poorly constructed, but cowardly.

Black spaces can help you cope with racism and other social ills amongst your peers, but they will never protect you from racism, neither in your daily life nor institutionally. Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston didn't take Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka to the Supreme Court in 1954 for us to retreat in 2015. James Meredith didn't march to his University of Mississippi classes with soldiers in 1962 for us to do so either. Running away won't win us our rights or respect, and asserting that black students at PWIs are responsible for the racism they face is victim-blaming. As stated in a recent Medium article addressing this issue, "In order to change a system, there has to be resistance to the system; there has to be sabotage of business as usual."

2) You're Promoting Division, Not Unity
Everything in this argument stating that black students at PWIs would know more about unity if they attended HBCUs is false. The very fact that those making this argument are judging and disparaging others shows that they are completely misguided about the meaning of unity. In a time when the black community should come together as one, people making the HBCU vs. PWI argument are just taking advantage of another opportunity to tear one another apart. For people so adamant about seeking solidarity and not "assimilating," they are strongly perpetuating "divide and conquer" rhetoric and the notion that black people are "crabs in a barrel."

Furthermore, it seems that people have selective amnesia when it comes to black students succeeding in white places. Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, and Sigma Gamma Rho, three of nine National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations, were all founded at PWIs. In addition, many HBCUs were founded with money from white donors and run by white presidents for years. Black leaders have emerged from both HBCUs and PWIs for over a century, from Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. Every black student that we see attending school and graduating with a college degree, regardless of the institution, should be celebrated.

3) You Need to Check Your Feelings and Facts
In season 3 of A Different World, an episode called "Here's to Old Friends" aired that addressed the HBCU vs. PWI argument. Dwayne Wayne's stance on Hillman College likely brought pride and joy to the hearts of HBCU students and alumni everywhere. But it also made the one representative of black PWI students an antagonist. People are understandably sensitive about where they've invested their time and money for an education, but the typical attitude in this debate towards PWI students is one of hostility. As if playing into the field vs. house slave, light vs. dark skin dispute, PWI students are framed as if they have betrayed the black community by attending a different school.

There are statistics to support one's decision to attend either type of institution, but that decision has no effect on another individual's life. Until, that is, black people feel under attack, and, for some reason, then feel the need to attack each other. At the end of the day, no matter which we've attended, we are still black. That will never change, despite any institutions we choose to avoid or engage. With that knowledge, we should be standing together rather than falling apart.

The opinions of PWI and HBCU students that aim to disparage one another are often the loudest. They are the ones that spark Twitter debates and get screenshots posted on popular instagram pages. The aggression can and has come from both sides. But there are many black students, from PWIs and HBCUs, who support one another in spite and even because of what institution they attended. Those are the voices we need to uplift, and those are the ones that will bring us unity in today's student movement.