Teaching at the HBCU

Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski

A white teacher in a room full of African American students has come to be something of a cliché in popular culture. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski from The Wire is a typical example. At the start of the Season 4, we see him standing in front of a room of noisy African American kids politely trying, and completely failing, to get their attention. The kids see him for the shmuck that he is and within minutes are stealing his bus passes and walking out. However, by the end of Season 5, he’s evolved into something of a tough but fair teacher, someone who’s able to do good work in a broken education system. The moral of these kinds of depictions is typically one of cautious optimism — white teachers in minority-majority institutions might do some good if they check their privilege and stop trying to act like white saviors.

Outside of fictional depictions, white teachers in mostly African American educational settings are rarely discussed. A notable exception is the speech given by elementary school teacher Emily E. Smith while accepting the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award. Smith encourages white teachers to “Be the teacher your children of color deserve” and to “teach the texts that paint all the beautiful faces of our children and tell the stories of struggle and victory our nation has faced.”

While, to my reading, Smith presents her solution as a panacea to the myriad racial tensions of the day, her approach is sound, if not a bit obvious.

But what of the same situation at the college level?

White teachers at minority-majority colleges, particularly at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), are practically invisible. Catherine Morris recently acknowledged as much, noting that despite that whites make up as much as a quarter of the faculty of at HBCUs, they rarely discuss their experiences.

In elementary and high school, the white teacher is a trope, a cause for cautious optimism. At the college level, particularly at HBCUs, white scholars occupy a delicate position, serving in institutions with mostly African American administration and mission statements that promote service to the African American community. This is not to say that white scholars are marginalized at these institutions, but rather that white scholars serve these schools in an often more tenuous and peripheral capacity. These scholars generally fear stepping into an imperialistic role and often feel, as Morris notes, that any criticism would be interpreted as racism.

As someone who falls under this purview, a white, former faculty member of a southern HBCU, I shared many of these concerns. While on staff, I was wary of criticizing the school for fear of contributing to racist discourses that denigrate students at such schools or, indeed, being labeled a racist. I also felt that I had less standing to voice criticism of HBCUs, as many African American journalists and academics have done.

And yet, because white scholars are heavily represented at HBCUs and other minority-majority institutions, we are in unique positions to shape them through our teaching and service. Our perspectives, I think, ought to be voiced, even if it is problematic to do so.

As many are aware, limits to federal support and the Parent PLUS Loan Program have reduced funding to HBCUs by hundreds of millions of dollars since 2011. Endowments at HBCUs have likewise stagnated with only 6 out of 10 HBCU endowments outperforming the market in 2014 compared to a rate of 9 out of 10 for historically white schools. Unbelievably, the wealth gap between the two has grown to a staggering 106:1. These financial troubles have led to closings and bankruptcies across the country. HBCUs like St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va. and Mary Holmes College in Jacksonville, MS have closed outright while others like Morris Brown College and Cheyney College, the nation’s oldest HBCU, face dire financial woes. Even top-ranking Morehouse and Spelman have faced serious financial difficulties in recent years.

Perhaps most dispiritingly, students of HBCUs who are lucky and persistent enough to make it to a degree (a 2013 survey of HBCUs conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported that at half of the institutions they studied, the graduation rate was at 33% or lower — at my institution it was far less) are burdened with debt and face severely diminished job prospects. In a report authored by the Center for Popular Democracy, January 2015 unemployment rates for African Americans were twice that of whites. Perhaps more disheartening is the recent news from the Federal Reserve that African Americans with a college degree saw a sixty percent decline in their real median net worth between 1992 and 2013 compared with an 86% rise for degreed whites.

An additional obstacle for many schools is a state law that has thwarted universities’ ability to offer remediation to their most needy students. Along with several other states, Tennessee has transferred all remedial coursework to community colleges. While this may be inconsequential for wealthy institutions, my institution accepted students with ACT scores as low as 13 in both English and Reading. Students whose reading and writing abilities would typically qualify them for remediation at other schools are placed in standard courses to sink or swim. Usually it’s the former.

This is the context that faculty members find themselves in at financially strapped HBCUs, doing their best to teach and support the institution against the overwhelming decline both of HBCUs and the quality of life of their graduates.

When I came to the school, I took in how the aging brick campus bore the strain of governmental abandonment and systematic disinvestment. I struggled to deal with numerous daily obstacles to my teaching: infrastructure and network failures, a disorganized administration, a general lack of communication, and incoherent or unenforced policies. After several semesters of struggling to teach to my standard, I became despondent. Effectively, I started to feel that my work might be contributing to an institution that, because of the reasons mention above, was doing a disservice to its students. While I certainly did not, and do not, think that minority students should ever forego college, it seemed that many institutions that were historically primed to serve students of color were, at best, often no longer able to do that. At worst, my students were being severely harmed by their attempt to get an education. And of course, re Catherine Harris, these were thoughts I kept quiet.

For several years, I taught African American students that were not being served. Whether it was the lack of services available to them, the lack of teaching recourses, or a campus-wide network blackout, I was often unable to do my job properly or offer these students the kind of education many of them needed. This was not an issue of teaching the right texts; rather, this was a matter of a chronic national failure to support minority communities. I saw it everyday but couldn’t do much about it. I couldn’t even talk about it.

I ultimately don’t have anything original to suggest regarding how to fix the problems that plague HBCUs and other minority-majority institutions. However, when scholars are silent on these issues, nothing good will follow. If nothing else, white scholars should feel emboldened to start a conversation about their role at minority-majority institutions and about what they can do to support students.

I don’t have any illusion that white scholars can “save” these schools. But our silence isn’t helping them.