In a shiny glass conference room on the ninth floor of the main Quicken Loans office, a tour guide asked a group of 16 Duke students if they knew what an HBCU was. We are guests here in the city of Detroit, participating in a DukeEngage program and serving several community partners across the community. Maybe a few of the students were sleeping or not paying attention, and many of our group is international, often unaware of bits and pieces of American culture. Regardless, 3 or 4 of us raised our hands. The vast majority of the room stared blankly at our tour guide as he spelled out the acronym: “Historically Black College or University.”

Since that moment, I have been thinking about the way Duke and its peer institutions teach and value the Black American experience. The students at these school are widely considered by our highly selective college admissions system to be some of the smartest and most accomplished in the world. They know volumes about the intricacies of quantum physics, can code innovative interactive applications in java script, and can quote paragraphs of Hobbes, Hume, and Olson. But I’d be willing to bet money that 50 percent of Duke students could not name 5 HBCUs.

Whether implicitly or explicitly, Duke is enforcing a hierarchy of knowledge, placing value on certain aspects of history and curriculum and ignoring others. African American history classes, which cover some of the most pivotal events in the chronicles of our nation, are seen as niche interests, rarely frequented by the Goldman-bound Econ majors who represent Duke’s best and brightest. 

This hierarchy poses a real threat to cities like Detroit. If the nation’s creme de la creme, those expected to rebuild and reinvigorate cities across the U.S., are focused only on balancing checkbooks (which is undeniably important) and minimizing carbon emissions (also undeniably important), then they will ultimately lack the cultural capital necessary to truly understand American cities. In Detroit, it is impossible to ignore race. The city, according to the most recent census, is 83 percent black. It played a historic role in the Underground Railroad, and its black population multiplied by 611 percent throughout the Great Migration in the 20th century, as black families fled Southern white violence. The city of Detroit became home to some of the most vicious housing policies in the nation, and white flight plagued the city. Race riots in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s marred the its history and revealed the North’s oft-forgotten resistance to racial equality. Housing segregation was enforced both by automobile manufacturers and by federal and municipal legislation, confining Detroit’s black community to neighborhoods like Black Bottom, which would ultimately be destroyed in the urban renewal projects of the 1970s. The extent of white flight in Detroit allowed for the development of a strong, distinct, and unapologetic black culture in the city, which may or may not be appreciated by those leading the charge for redevelopment in the city.

The 16 of us students came here to think about broad economic development in a previously bankrupt city. But if our idea of development is fully tied to the gleaming buildings of downtown and the vegan brunch restaurant in Corktown, then perhaps we are enforcing gentrification, not growth. Predominately White Institutions like Duke need to make a whole-hearted effort to teach all of their students a fuller version of American history, one that will allow them to actually engage with our rapidly diversifying nation. I cannot count the number of times that Duke students from New York and Los Angeles have expressed shock at the racist legacy of the South, claiming that they were never exposed to that in their home cities. Yet, if they truly understood this nation, they would know that their urban communities deal with the same violent policing, the same segregated school systems, and the same economic disenfranchisement that have been present time and time again in Durham, and that I am now witnessing in Detroit.

Duke needs to prepare students to confront the legacies of structural racism in this country as they go on to influence the realms of sustainability, business, and policy. If Duke students are going to “Challenge themselves and change their worlds,” as DukeEngage advertises, they should probably know the definition of an HBCU.

Author's note: This column was originally published as a blog post at http://www.dukeengagedetroit.org/student-blog/week-3-leah-abrams.