Well, if you overlook the historic and systemic destabilization of African-American communities in our country pre and post Reconstruction, then by those terms, and by a very warped sense of reality, HBCUs are “unconstitutional." Perhaps the generations following the women and men of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma found the Higher Education Act of 1965 pointless, after the Ku Klux Klan’s 16 hour riot destroyed their once flourishing neighborhood decades earlier. Perhaps that too seemed unconstitutional. What grows more visible each day is that efforts to vitalize a once enslaved body of people in our country continue to meet opposition at the highest forms of government.
The United Negro College Fund reached out to Trump after Friday’s signing statement revealed a relatively ambiguous provision for funding Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Many in the higher education community saw it as a complete 180 from his previous promises to support African-American communities, especially in the field of education. The White House, as many HBCUs have begun to point out, revealed their misunderstanding of the purpose of colleges that serve the systemically marginalized, in Trump’s signing statement.
His office has made it a point to send a particular message through the building of their administration and the signing of executive orders that target largely marginalized communities. The “Muslim Ban” was among the first real, tangible pieces of evidence that set the tone, followed by the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose past included a rebuke by Coretta Scott King for his racist history in Alabama. Add to the mix a bevy of alt-right sentiments and Islamophobic remarks, and a culture of nativist ideologies, and what results is an administration that uses legislation to disenfranchise those in the margins.
Just today, reports came out on Session’s efforts to review Obama-era policies regarding severe mandatory minimum sentences. In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. released a memo instructing prosecutors to avoid enacting those severe mandatory minimum sentences on low-level drug offenders, a move urged by civil rights groups and lawmakers who saw the drug war of the 1980’s and 90’s disproportionately target people of color. As a result, we’ve seen the most egregious case of civil injustice in mass incarceration. The NAACP currently reports that together, African-Americans and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008, even though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population. If the White House is genuinely concerned with the advancement of marginalized communities, their legislation needs to mirror that of progress.
Trump’s statement, and supposed “unwavering support,” received stern criticism from Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich) and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Black Caucuses, who said in a statement, “Sadly and shamefully, HBCUs, including the schools that President Trump met with, are left to wonder whether he wants to help or hurt them.” The actions of this administration seem to function largely on the basis of political incentives; that is, Trump chose to offer false promises and platitudes for political footing and to silence doubt—doubt that has resurfaced due to the ambiguity with which his administration operates.
The importance of HBCUs extends beyond the reach of Trump’s signing statement, as they’ve established a history of vitalization and support for communities targeted by racist institutions, as well as combatting division at the hands of legislation aimed at academic disenfranchisement. Tens of thousands of Black students in the mid-20th century attended Fisk University, Hampton Institute, Howard University, Meharry Medical College, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Tuskegee Institute during one of our most segregated periods—the “separate but equal” doctrine that followed the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 highlighted the lack of quality education afforded to Black students. What followed were actions taken up to speed the process of desegregating these institutions, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and efforts by the Office of Civil Rights to investigate institutions that still operated under racial segregation, an affront to Title IV that ensured equal opportunity to an education.
With the storied history of HBCUs embedded in American society, legislators have repeatedly taken to Capitol Hill to alter the efficacy of civil rights efforts, and now that Trump has released an unclear statement calling into question his commitment to academics in the African-American community, one could only guess when the UNCF will have legitimate concerns to face. Posing for a photo op with 64 HBCU presidents in the Oval Office was certainly a political incentive for Trump back in February, but legitimate concerns are growing, and the need for clearer, more transparent legislation will test his mettle, and ultimately his alleged “unwavering support."
Jamal Michel is a featured guest columnist. He is a Duke graduate and high school English teacher in Durham.