Click to go to the Subscriber Log In Page
Go to menu with buttons for all pages on BC
Click here to go to the Home Page
Est. April 5, 2002
October 05, 2017 - Issue 714

Bookmark and Share

A Seat at The Table
By Dr. Zebulon Vance Miletsky, PhD
"In a time where people loudly question the
need for HBCUs - who see it as a example of
reverse racism - why do we have historically
black institutions? Why is there a black history month?
We don't have a white history month. The rise of
white student unions on college campuses tells the tale.
What is the role for HBCUs in a time of #BlackLivesMatter?
How do we get a seat at the table?"

When Donald Trump was first elected, indeed throughout the election cycle, there were tacit comparisons made to Germany of the 1930s. Plenty of people were quoting - in memes, on social media - the famous line by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who spoke out against Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of his life in a concentration camp for it. "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me," Niemöller is famous for saying.

While some of those doomsday scenarios may have seemed to represent a more cynical point of view, today it does not seem so far-fetched. "Give him a chance", people said. "He is our President." However, events as they have unfolded since Trump’s ascension to power have not given anyone solace in the face of such historically laden circumstances. To anyone with even the most basic appreciation for history (or eyes, even) the parallels to that era are obvious and unsettling. Like those troubling times, people of conscience have begun to organize. And today the characterization is no longer so extreme. In fact, all of the pieces seem to be in place. President Trump, for his part at least, does not seem to have any problem playing the part of tyrannical leader. Today, we do have something called a “resistance". People are organizing to protect people from being rounded up. The Ku Klux Klan expresses itself openly - not only with words but with violence. Black lives are terrorized daily. Bomb threats of Jewish Community Centers have reached record levels. Calls to re-institute "Stop & Frisk" are being reissued. Should it matter that today it's called ICE and not Gestapo?

The historical echoes are chilling. And without going into all the parallels (there are many) "Professor Watchlists" for so-called "anti-American" scholars have drawn increased attention thanks to the so-called "alt-right" and white supremacist blogs and news services which cause them to go viral. Left-leaning or progressive scholars in the academy (especially scholars of color) have been picketed by College Republican conservative groups. Conservative speakers have also been picketed. There are massive political debates on college campuses today about policies, “safe spaces” and an overall effort to flesh out the true meaning of the first amendment. Most recently, Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor at Princeton University, received death threats after Fox News aired a clip from her commencement speech at Hampshire College. Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is also working on a new book in progress Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s. Taylor canceled scheduled subsequent talks as a result. A petition initiated by the Department of African-American Studies and a Facebook post by Black Lives Matter in solidarity with Taylor went viral.

But unlike the alleged rebukes of conservative speakers, such as the recent flap over the authors of the controversial book The Bell Curve, and the expected hew and cry about abuses of academic freedom from the right, Yamahtta Taylor’s case did not garner as many headlines as it probably should have. (See: Where is the outrage for Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor? This, in addition to many similar cases, has led to a rich (and worthwhile) debate about the strictures and limits of academic freedom on college campuses - one that we have been having since the Berkeley Free speech movement days of the 1960s, and earlier.

Besides these egregious examples of individual harassment, there has also been what might be called "institutional harassment" - of either college presidents of color - black leaders of predominately white institutions, or in a recent case, of an entire set of black leaders in Higher education - Presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In a "post-civil rights" society, the question before these leaders is how to lead Black institutions of higher education in the Trump era - dealing with a government that is hostile to black people. In a time where people loudly question the need for HBCUs - who see it as a example of reverse racism - why do we have historically black institutions? Why is there a black history month? We don't have a white history month. The rise of white student unions on college campuses tells the tale. What is the role for HBCUs in a time of #BlackLivesMatter? How do we get a seat at the table?

There were early signs of trouble. When the Talladega College Tornado Marching Band agreed to perform at then President-elect Donald Trump's inaugural parade in spite of protests by some alumni and members of the public, it became the only historically black college or university (HBCU) to participate. The outcry was deafening. Or when Betsy DeVos, Trump's education secretary was invited to be the keynote speaker at Bethune-Cookman university, the students booed, with many even turning their backs in protest over shouts from then President Edison O. Jackson who stated, over loud jeers from the audience, If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go. Jackson resigned from the institution in the wake of financial woes, although the situation with DeVos probably did not help.

There is a general misunderstanding (call it a selective revisionism, not "fake news") among the Trump administration about the historical mission of HBCUs in America -indeed of African-American history itself. Take Trump's comment about the great work Frederick Douglass is now doing, and "an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more." In one of the strongest cases for the continued existence of Black Studies that I've ever seen, Americans wondered: Could it be that the President didn't know who Frederick Douglass was?

At a White House meeting between President Trump and the leaders of HBCUs held in the Oval Office on February 27th, the President made promises to the leaders of those venerable institutions - promises about financial relief for the many HBCUs who have seen a dip in recent years in their fundraising and giving. The next day, February 28th, Trump signed an Executive Order, extending the life of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which had been under the Department of Education since Jimmy Carter first established it in 1979.

After that now infamous meeting, Betsy DeVos, Trump's controversial Secretary of Education, used the opportunity to make a false comparison to the charter school debate now raging in education, wrongheadedly describing the origins of HBCUs as havingstarted from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality and in another statement praising HBCUs for having "identifying a system that wasnt workingand taking it upon themselves to provide the solutionfrom the outset of their founding."

Of course this statement was universally criticized and roundly dismissed by anyone with even an inkling of an understanding of Black History--dare I say American History.

John S. Wilson, former President of Morehouse College and the head of the White House Initiative under Obama, responded to Devos's statement explaining: “HBCUs were not created because the 4 million newly freed blacks were unhappy with the choices they had. They were created because they had no choices at all. That is not just a very important distinction, it is profoundly important. Why? Because, if one does not understand the crippling and extended horrors of slavery, then how can one really understand the subsequent history and struggle of African Americans, or the current necessities and imperatives that grow out of that history and struggle?”

However, in our uproar about what appeared to be "a seat at the table", what we may have missed is that a deal may have also have been on the table - a deal that if accepted, could very well change the nature of HBCUs in this country. DeVos' cryptic statements about HBCU's may obscure a potentially ulterior motive - to turn HBCUs into the charter schools of Higher Education. Before you say "No", consider this. Trump promised massive funds for HBCUs. It made headlines. What has not made as many headlines is the fact that thus far no money has been forthcoming. Money was promised but never delivered. If #BlackTwitter is any indication, many assume it is never coming. But it just might be. The aforementioned funds may come from some of the sources that have bankrolled Charter Schools and have flooded a growing number of districts with private donor money (and in most cases public money). So much money in fact, that many public schools find it hard to compete-- a system that essentially provides charters with tax payer-funded public start-up funds and allows them to also enjoy a kind of entrepreneurial quasi-private status as they compete to receive private funds.

In August of 2017, Education secretary Betsy Devos back pedaled on her statements of of the previous spring regarding HBCUs. As reported by the Root, she stated, in an interview with the Associated Press, “When I talked about it being a pioneer in choice, it was because I acknowledge that racism was rampant and there were no choices. These HBCUs provided choices for black students that they didnt have.

I knew President John Wilson from my days at Boston College. I interned for a group called Bridging Bridgesthat grew out of the cooperation of several Boston area community based youth development organizations, but mainly Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts, Inc. (CBMM) and the Greater Boston Morehouse College Alumni Association (GBMCAA). There was also cooperation and support from the Paul Robeson Institute (PRI)--all major voices in changing the lives of young black men in the 1990s. They saw these groups as "bridges" in the community. Their task and goal was simply to "bridge the bridges". He and several of the others who formed that group—Dr. Keith Motley (who also took a somewhat earlier than expected retirement this year as the first Black Chancellor of Umass-Boston under the muted cries of racism but officially over budget matters.... another casualty of "Institutional harassment"), Demetriouse L. Russell, and Dr. Donald Brown were generous mentors. I happily and proudly took the minutes amidst special appearances from fellow Morehouse College alumni Spike Lee, Jasmine Guy, and the mighty Morehouse College Glee Club. Although I am not a Morehouse man myself, for obvious reasons, I feel a special kinship.

I have been struggling to understand exactly what happened with this situation. Originally, TheRoot had reported that Wilson had been fired as President due to the White House meeting. He was after all "the only HBCU president to boldly speak out after Donald Trump summoned the heads of HBCUs to the White House to sit quietly for a round of Betsy DeVos insults and pose for Kellyanne Conway’s Snapchat," The Root reported. He was fired for it, the HBCU Digest reported.

However, in a letter to students explaining that reports of his ouster were not accurate Wilson stated, "while many of the HBCU presidents raised the expectations of their constituents, other than getting bronzer all over his hand, nothing much came out of the summit." His Although Wilson stepped down in June, only three months later, when his current contract ended, the speculation of many observers at the time was that his contract was not renewed because of his handling of Trump. Wilson was defiant in his defense of the meeting, the damage was done—it was a public relations disaster. In addition to natural skepticism, the image of Kellyanne Conway’s feet on the couch—a moment begging for further analysis to be sure—eliminated any possibility of this being received in any way other than outright disgust by many. (#BlackTwitter swooned about never having been allowed to place their feet on their mother’s couch, but the truth is that the optics of a white woman surrounded by mostly black men in such a casual position smacked of an earlier epoch in American history. But that is another blog.)

However, what Wilson (nor most of the leaders gathered at that fateful meeting) may have failed to realize however, is that what DeVos may have been proposing was that HBCUs will be the latest target of Trump’s obsession with privitization and as such, HBCUs will enter into the fractious debate around public vs. charters—thus underscoring the current crisis in Black Education. (Trump is also trying to shut down Amtrak! Probably for purposes of privatization. Remember Trump Air? There is a reason why he campaigned on fixing our crumbling airports. Privatization. Get it?) There must be a reason Trump placed the White House initiative under the Oval Office--in a clear case of keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Wilson was one of the only leaders who spoke out against Trump after the meeting. In his efforts to get HBCUs a seat at the table, he may have sacrificed his position. But at the same time, perhaps Wilson understood something we don't. Things weren't perfect before this either. There were budget issues. An Inside Higher Ed article stated, “Wilson has endured his share of bumps during his tenure. He put budget cuts in place to stem a financial crisis in 2013. He took criticism for being unable to reverse a recent history of falling enrollment at Morehouse” A petition was also circulated for his ouster.

For many of the finance riddled HBCUs, a chance for a seat at the table may prove too hard to resist. But we cannot say that John Wilson did not warn us. Guest Commentator, Dr. Zebulon Miletsky, PhD, is a professor of Africana Studies at SUNY Stony Brook.
Bookmark and Share




is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion by Jamala Rogers