Today, the United States has 101 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) still in existence. Historically, they were created to help educate recently freed African Americans at a time when they were not welcome as students on college campuses and had rare, and realistically nonexistent, avenues to continuing and higher education. As colleges and universities no longer have overt racial barriers to attendance and the enrollment of racial minorities are expected to continually increase, some may wonder why HBCUs still exist or are even necessary in the higher education landscape today.
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The answer lies in the unspoken fact that most colleges and universities are historically white institutions (HWIs) with predominantly white student bodies. The foundational traditions, policies, and organization of HWIs promote the success of traditional students: the white elite. Although most institutions have made strives to promote diversity access, equity, and inclusion, it does not fully address the otherism and determents that many black students have and continue to experience on HWI campuses.
In their article, “”Historically White Universities and Plantation Politics: Anti-Blackness and Higher Education in the Black Lives Matter Era,”” T. Elon Dancy II, Kirsten T. Edwards, and James Earl Davis argue that the United States education system perpetuates plantation politics and colonial order to subjugate and dehumanize black people. Building upon Charles Mills work, The Racial Contract (1997), they frame higher education as an institution that has maintained white supremacy and anti-blackness through “”[imbedded] legacies of the anti-black settler colonial state”” (Dancy II, Edwards, & Davis, 2018, 182). The authors examine “”three dimensions of anti-blackness [manifesting] within higher education:”” perceptions of black labor, public education funding, and violence toward black students (Dancy II, Edwards, & Davis, 2018, 178). For this paper, I will focus on the first and last dimensions.
Black labor is viewed through settler colonial constructions in which African Americans are viewed as property and, as a result, their work is not recognized as valuable or remarkable (Dancy II, Edwards, & Davis, 2018, 181). For example, African Americans make up most of collegiate football and basketball players. In May 2015, 65% of Americans do not believe these players should be financially compensated for playing, advertisements, pictures in promotional materials, etc. (Dancy II, Edwards, & Davis, 2018, 186). However, 53% of black/African Americans, as opposed to only 22% of white people, believe that colleges athletes should be compensated. Essentially, colleges are extracting free labor from their players as par for the course, as if their image, profile, and ability were property of the institution. Also, African American students are not equally valued as academics and there seems to be an implicit bias among white people to stereotype all black students as student athletes: “”Black males across [HWIs] lament the regular assumption that their admission is predicated on their athletic prowess”” (Dancy II, Edwards, & Davis, 2018, 184). We can also see this settler colonial construction of black labor in the national conversation surrounding the protest of kneeling during the national anthem. Many people, mainly white people, have responded to this negatively with the common response of, “”Shut up and just play football.”” To me, this supports the idea that white people do not accept the minds or lives of African Americans, and just want them to do their expected labor without complaint, deviation, or thought.
We can also see the continuation of inherent plantation politics on campuses through violence toward black students, faculty, and staff on campus. Since 2016, we have seen a rise in racist and white supremacist attacks across campuses nationwide. Just this year, two black students had the campus police called on them, just because they were black and, therefore, seemed out of place. The very idea that African American students can seem out of place on their own campus shows that there is a fundamental disconnect between being black and a college student. However, “”a university’s insistence on characterizing anti-black violence as incidental or anomalous functionally erases the history of trauma experienced by black bodies on white campuses”” (Dancy II, Edwards, & Davis, 2018, 189). Higher education institutions need to do a better job of recognizing these attacks in the larger context of anti-blackness rather than as isolated events. If institutions ignore the framework of these instances and respond only to protect their public image, they become complicit in supporting anti-blackness on their campus.
Dancy II, Edwards, and Davis concluded that black populations should protect themselves from anti-blackness by attending HBCUs. From my limited white privilege prospective, I do not agree with this solution. As student affairs professionals, our policies, programs, and decisions affect the experiences of students at our institutions. I must believe that student affairs leaders can identify and change inherent and systemic policies and practices that continue settler colonial construction divides, attitudes, and inequity. Therefore, as student affairs practitioners, we need be aware of the systemic and institutionalized frameworks that create advantages and/or disadvantages for racial and the varied identities among our student populations.
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