HBCUs Are Not the Answer to PWI Racism

by Brittany Dawson

Oklahoma’s flagship university is suffering from a self-inflicted media hailstorm after a racist video went viral  showing a fraternity chant conducted by members of the University of Oklahoma’ Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter.

The video pans over to a raucous bunch of Sooner Sigmas clapping and hooting, effortlessly treating each lyric with great levity. The University of Oklahoma permanently expelled members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, and, with the help of law enforcement–Oh the irony! Excuse me while I react accordingly—safely escorted the young group of White racists out of their fraternity house. As you’d expect, the reaction shocked both Black students at the University of Oklahoma and worldwide. A call to action to stop racism and hold predominantly white institutions accountable became a national priority overnight.

Aside from protests and mawkish apology letters, the most salient reaction to date is the reaction from a small, yet loud group of HBCU supporters, alumni, and current students. Some took the opportunity to use this racist event to suggest Black students should stop attending PWIs in favor of HBCUs. An HBCU Digest article entitled “PWI Student Racism: The Ultimate HBCU Recruitment Video” unfurls this very issue with a couple of important rhetorical questions:
“In the end, what is the smarter proposition for black students? To work and hope for change in the minds of racist students, who have been programmed from birth to think this way? Or to avoid those places and faces, in exchange for where there is a definition of racial harmony, closer to any other place you'll find in higher education?”
Needless to say, one commenter, DuWarn Porter, reflects a common belief among these select anti-PWI, gung-ho HBCU supporters most prevalent whenever a PWI is under fire for treating Black students with derision:
So either join a BGLO or go to a HBCU simple as that. If you choose [neither] than you might as well sing along with SAE members because you support their organization when you support the institutions they have chapters at. Think about it. REALLY !!! GOMAB!!!
Despite the article’s best intentions, the comments section (alongside similar debates) reignites the caustic belief that HBCUs are better for Blacks than PWIs due to their commendable quantity of Black students. Representation does not necessarily necessitate racial harmony, for we all know there are many divisions within the Black community. I am not denying the historical impact, whether currently or in the past, of HBCUs. However championing one over the other in the face of racism is unfair and emblematic of a much larger issue.

The same folk arguing vehemently against Blacks attending predominantly white institutions somehow believe historically Black colleges are devoid of racism and other social issues simply based on the high percentage of Black students represented on campus. While in one breath, this appears to be a plausible statement, the fact still remains that HBCUs are not the answer to PWI racism.

Nonetheless, we are actually polemicizing the PWI vs. HBCU debate even further by pinning “Black” schools against “White” schools, Black students at PWIs against HBCUs, esteemed alumni and faculty from both institutions whose indelible legacies remain evident in the state of higher education for minority students. I refuse to turn in my academic transcripts and collegiate experiences to predatory Black folk who believe their HBCU can somehow save the state of Black America. I’m sure your university is one of many accolades, awards, and importance, but a misguided opinion on school choice and preference does little to combat racism. Most importantly, the message gets lost within domineering and implicit sentiments such as “I told you so,” and “What did you expect from a PWI?” from HBCU advocates who claim racism will go poof if we funnel all of our brightest and Blackest to Howard. Sorry, but this fallacious argument is both wrong and malnourished.

I’d go as far to say that this argument mirrors controversies surrounding public versus private schooling, with public schools representing a vice tinged hub of debauchery whereas private schools counter public school depravity. Like public schools, private schools suffer from their own array of unique challenges. Tuition, for example, wheedles out the not so desirable candidates, a subtle way to create an exclusive comradery of the best and the brightest.

The PWI vs. HBCU debate, too, faces the same tension. Predominantly white institutions are akin to public schools. Interestingly enough, in comparison to HBCUs, students have access to resources many HBCUs are still fighting to secure. Most HBCUs are privately funded with the aid of giving alumni and state funds. But given the current state of HBCUs, some are at risk of shutting their doors completely.

Orangeburg, South Carolina is home to South Carolina State, the state’s most notable HBCU. Money woes caused the state to pass a measure to shut down the university for two years—based on educational disparities, vanishing funds, and prospective students’ general lack of interest in attending the school.

If anything, the HBCU vs. PWI debate highlights the biggest factor that deters Black students from attending PWIs. Sure, attending a predominantly white institution affords experiences not necessarily distinct, but culturally and socially unique than that of an HBCU. But with these said differences, many Black and minority students feel alienated from campus culture, citing the purportedly “colorblindness” mentality PWI universities promote in order to make folks of color feel comfortable with being a minority. Still, other than providing a more culturally safe environment, HBCUs cannot fix racism alone.

In contrast, HBCUs at the very least offer a climate rich in Black history, tradition, and pride. In fact, the pedagogical framework of HBCUs go beyond helping students simply graduate. Instead, students who graduate from HBCUs have what I call an “authentic understanding” of the importance of uplifting the community. Now don’t get me wrong, Black students at predominantly White schools can seek an understanding and appreciation of Black culture. But as someone who attends a PWI netted in the chunky arteries of Southern Confederacy and the lungs of Jim Crow, Black students must seek these opportunities for themselves or through the few avenues to do so provided by the school—like African studies courses or Black student clubs.

Given these jarring examples of the lack of urgency when it comes to validating the lived experiences of underrepresented groups at predominantly white institutions, I still choose to attend the University of South Carolina. By attending a predominantly white institution, I am neither condoning nor supporting other PWIs who show antipathy for other cultures. It’s all about choice here. I am proud knowing my father and other family members attended the same university. My pride is no different than a Hampton University alumni whose son shares the same legacy. But these legacies cannot be forced; rather, we should continue to welcome all students with open arms without bullying Blacks into attending one or the other.

Don’t get it twisted, I will march, write, complain, and make my voice heard in the event the University of South Carolina models the behavior of the University of Oklahoma. But the fact still remains that despite our advancements throughout the Diaspora, predominantly white intuitions are dangerously behind in adapting more culturally responsive pedagogies. Whiteness bolsters the mainstream and elite appeal of said PWIs, maintaining the everlasting notoriety of its most represented group of students: White people. But is this enough to tell Black students to crumble up their college application letters to Duke or the University of Florida in favor of Bethune-Cookman or Benedict? Absolutely not.

All in all, HBCUs cannot alone battle and defeat racism. But what HBCUs and other institutions alike can do is cultivate nurturing, safe spaces for students. In order for this to happen, America must finally acknowledge that letting freedom ring from hilltop to hilltop is meaningless if her ears are shut to the heavy sobs of her Black children.

Photo: Shutterstock

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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