This has been a week full of irony. To some people, the president labeled the greatest symbol of a post-racial America is wrongheaded to affirm the White House Initiative on Black Colleges first made by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Even then, thirty years ago, there were those who argued that black institutions of higher education, because segregated, were (or should be made) obsolete. This week, President Obama declared September 12 through September 18th National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week and "call[ed] upon all public officials, educators, librarians, and Americans to observe this week with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that acknowledge the tremendous achievements HBCUs and their graduates have made to our country.
To many, including some students at black colleges, both the reaffirmation of the Initiative and the declaration of the national celebration come somewhat as a shock, though the observance is actually thirty years old. Unfortunately, the initiative has remained under the radar even for students who have possibly been at least indirect beneficiaries of it. Hopefully, the blogosphere has gotten the word out to the hundreds of thousands of students at HBCUs, to parents of potential students for these institutions, and of course to the various educational and cultural institutions which President Obama has called upon to celebrate the various achievers and achievements made possible by black colleges.
Full celebration, however, is arrested by those who share the mindset of Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, who asked in response to the affirmation: "Why is the first African American "post-racial" President continuing this inane ritual of paying homage to and throwing money at HBCUs in an effort to "strengthen historically black colleges?" Meyers, who appears to be black, reasoned that HBCUs are unnecessary in a post-segregationist society, that blacks are no longer barred legally from attending non-race based institutions, and that, since no legitimate rationale can be found for the continued existence of HBCUs, the sole reason for their existence is the emotional attachments of their alumni to them. (Though I will not charge Meyers with racism in this statement, the suggestion that there is no intellectual content in the rationale for black colleges today is troubling.)
Singing the praises of black colleges, though I am well able to do so having graduated in 1987 from Stillman College--founded in 1876 to educate potential black clergy mainly for the Presbyterian Church--is not my purpose in this post. My purpose, rather, is to acknowledge the temporal and physical disconnect that clearly exists between those who continue to find reason for black colleges and those who do not. The disconnect has a larger significance and relevance; I suspect that the same mindset that would deny the need for black colleges today would question a renewed focus on the study of slavery.
To begin, Meyers' opinion is based on the philosophy that all humans are created equal. (Certainly, I agree.) It is also based on a moral that says that different treatment for different peoples is in fact immoral. (I do not agree absolutely.) Meyers would appear to trust that the society will, if it has not already, achieve equality for all. For him I think the ideal precedes the real. Despite any lag we might find in black social and economic health, Meyers has faith that in time it will be eliminated. There are undoubtedly many people who share Meyers' thinking on this and related issues. But of course there are also many others, myself among them, who see things differently.
In my town, the graduation rate in general is abysmal, and that of blacks is deplorable. Relatedly, this month's Crisis magazine, a publication of the NAACP, published the dismal graduation rates of black athletes, particularly at large Division I institutions. Low graduations rates are not the most troubling statistics for blacks. Surely, incarceration rates and mortality rates cause even greater concern. All of this is to say in short that we have not come anywhere close to reaching a post-racist America. Institutional racism and other racisms remain the beast with which we must deal rather than ignore. I look at Obama's reaffirmation, then, as a definite act of responsibility, a refusal to govern either through rose-colored glasses or from rarefied air. I am glad to know that his feet are planted firmly on the ground, that he reasons not from idealistic discursive formations that promote rhetoric as reality but from what he actually sees, touches, tastes, and smells and that he has not gone to--what I heard an architectural critic call "the great beyond" in reference to deeply postmodern theorists of the profession.
So, I am celebrating this week along with others who are both pleased about the reaffirmation and hopeful that the strengtening of the order will be felt by students attending these schools. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting with several black students Fisk University in Nashville, once home to world renowned scholar W.E.B. DuBois. While the students I met at Fisk were awesome, clearly advanced intellectually and on a path to greatness, it was also painfully clear that the school is struggling terribly and may possibly even be on the brink of closing. This state of what is otherwise a fine educational institution suggests to me that in spite of the 30th anniversary of President Carter's initiative many more Americans, black and white, are more of the mindset of Myers than of those who deeply understand the value of black colleges. Again, for me, the disconnect is not merely a practical problem, though this is great since the implications are real, but a matter of temporal and spatial dislocation. This postmodern dilemma is something I plan on addressing continually from different angles in this blog.