Saying HBCUs were pioneers in school choice is like saying segregated water fountains were about beverage choice, one twitter comment noted; it was one of many condemning Devos’ ignorance of black history. Library of Congress image via wikimedia

Dear Betsy: Jim Crow was not a choice

By Derryn Moten

Betsy Devos — our nation’s secretary of education — needs a history lesson.

As the esteemed presidents of more than 60 historically black colleges and universities gathered at the White House, she praised HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” She must have forgotten — or she never knew — that Jim Crow laws prohibited black people from attending white colleges. In those days that meant all colleges, so if black people wanted to go to college, they had to build their own.

Here is the lesson:

The advent of historically black colleges and universities was not a matter of “choice” but a matter of “no choice.” As Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said today, “HBCUs were created in response to a racist system of segregation that saw the education of black people as a threat to white supremacy — a belief central to slavery–and that refused to allow black people to participate in the education system available only to white people.”

The advent of historically black colleges and universities was not a matter of “choice” but a matter of “no choice.”

Even now “choosing” an HBCU is not what Devos might think. I “chose” to attend Howard University because I was wary of my ability to survive the overt and covert biases found on the campuses of many predominantly white institutions in the 1980s. I saw too many older siblings of friends go “down state” to Purdue, Indiana University or Indiana State only to return home after a year. Rarely did any of them graduate from these schools.

Howard was different; no one questioned whether I deserved to be there, and I was not invisible. As Ralph Ellison wrote, “I’m not invisible because I do not exist, I’m invisible because you refuse to see me.”

This is the ultimate subterfuge of the White House meeting. President Trump and Secretary Devos do not see black people as we are, they do not understand our history. They may have invited dozens of HBCU presidents to the White House but the visit was disappointing, according to at least one HBCU president who attended: more of a photo opp than an opportunity for dialogue. The big takeaway was that the liaison to HBCUs will be under the White House now instead of the Department of Education — but there will be no increase in funding, which is sorely needed.

HBCUs continue to be the poor stepchildren of higher education.

HBCUs continue to be the poor stepchildren of higher education. At Alabama State University, the HBCU where I teach history, it took a 30-year court battle, Knight v State of Alabama, to win state funding that could begin to compare to funding for predominantly white state universities. That means ASU’s budget has plummeted for years, and students have had to make do with fewer classes, fewer tenured faculty lines, more faculty vacancies, deferred maintenance — there is no corner of the university untouched by austerity.

I was actually more disturbed to hear Vice President Pence than I was to hear Devos’ stumble: He pledged to ensure that, moving forward, HBCUs will get more of the recognition they deserve, and that the White House will work more closely with them. Recognition is all well and good, but in the words of a popular movie, “Show me the money.” Without it, the “recognition” feels too much like a patronizing pat on the head.

There is too much history here, too many years of neglect that recognition alone cannot fix.

This administration has a lot of homework to do.

Derryn Moten is a professor of history and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University. He is co-president of the AFT Faculty-Staff Alliance at ASU Local 4866, southern regional vice president of the Alabama AFL-CIO and co-chair of the AFT Higher Education Program and Policy Council. Read more about the intersection of higher ed and social justice on Voices on Campus.