One of my favorite episodes of The Cosby Show dealt with what is in many ways a ‘rites of passage’ for all young people regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status. This moment that I pray to experience with my own son is the selection of which college or university will be fortunate enough to have him grace their halls.
In the alluded to episode, Denise Huxtable, played by Lisa Bonet, is torn between several fine academic institutions. These feelings of uncertainty were exacerbated by family members who rooted for their favorite institutions by sharing its pros and omitting its cons. Ultimately, Denise chose to attend Hillman College, a fictitious Historically Black College (HBCU), principally because of the stories she received from her parents and grandparents, who were alumni of Hillman College, regarding what made Hillman special, intangible qualities that could not be measured with data.
For the majority of the 20th-century an individual such as Denise Huxtable would not have had to worry herself regarding if she should attend a HBCU or a predominantly white institution (PWI); the latter would not have admitted her, particularly if she were living in the South. It was a foregone conclusion within the African-American community that their youth would attend a HBCU and earn a first-rate education that would be used to bolster their indigenous community. The alluded to pipeline of success would not be disrupted until integrationist-minded Civil Rights Leaders forced PWI’s to begin accepting a trickle of Black students into their hallowed halls.
While many naïve family members jubilantly celebrate their child’s decision to attend a prestigious PWI, they rarely take a moment to reflect upon the perilous dangers that their eighteen-year-old is entering. Although most students going away to college are going to face uncertainty and a bit of awkwardness, the transition for many African-American collegians attending PWIs is extremely difficult at every turn. If made aware of the actual social climate their loved ones were entering, their enthusiasm would most certainly be tempered. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of parents and grandparents, they are agreeing to place their children in the epicenter of American racism. Put simply, their eighteen-year-old had better be equipped with an inexhaustible amount of self-esteem, courage, focus, and determination or they, like so many of their Black peers, are not going to matriculate from the institution. The graduation rate for African-American students attending PWIs is in a word, deplorable.
Clearly those students who led the protests at the University of Missouri had little idea of what they should expect from their attendance at a PWI. One of their most obvious failures is an inability to understand that whites’ routinely view them as mentally inferior individuals who most likely should have never been admitted to their institution. Most African-American collegians attending PWI, fail to understand that from the perspective of the vast majority of the white classmates, they are guests, if not intruders, on their campus. And there is only so much comfort that any guest should ever feel.
Such matters leads one to a significant question, that being, what is the thought process that goes into African-American students by-passing the phenomenal opportunities provided by Historically Black College and Universities such as: Howard, Hampton, Bennett, Morehouse, Prairie View A & M University, Spelman, Tuskegee, Xavier, Fisk, North Carolina A & T, Florida A & M University and Tennessee State University. For many, it appears to be a situation where there is an intrinsic belief that ‘the white man’s ice is colder’ and attendance at a HBCU is ‘beneath them’.
Although there has been much negativity thrown in the direction of HBCU’s one cannot ignore the bottom line numbers that tell us that HBCUs make up a meager 3% of American institutions of higher learning, yet they graduate nearly 20% of African-American undergraduates; in excess of 50% of all African-American professionals have matriculated from some HBCU. According to the National Science Foundation, HBCUs have been particularly successful in graduating African-American students in the science’s and engineering fields.
Now there is little debate that the African-American students at the University of Missouri should be applauded for their courageous stand, make no mistake about it, little has changed within the institution or the hearts and minds of those who made the campus so unwelcoming. I predict that there is a segment of that university community that will entrench themselves in their racist viewpoints and consider the removal of President Wolfe to be a racial affront.
If provided an opportunity to speak with the students who decide to attend what will invariably be a hostile PWI campus and community, I would ask a simple question of ‘Who really needs that type of trouble? Particularly, when there are so many other welcoming offers from HBCUs that have historically dedicated themselves to growing the next generation of Black professionals.’
James Thomas Jones III, Ph. D.
©Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2015