Support — Or Not — for Black Colleges
Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 23, 2017
Just as with calls to families of soldiers and Marines killed in overseas conflicts, every U.S. president for 40 years since has pledged commitment to historically black colleges (HBCUs).
President Trump has a bit more checkered relationship with black college leaders.
Just last month, for example, there was the annual HBCU leadership gathering in Washington to lobby Congress and the White House. President Trump was not there to greet them, though it might have been a contentious meeting. The black college leaders are frustrated by conflicting signals from the Trump administration that go back months now. .
Much of that frustration has resulted what HBCUs consider little or no support from the administration, and what they call a lack of understanding of the financial straits some schools are facing. But then, there is also the President’s response to racial violence in Charlottesville and his questioning of the constitutionality for federal funds that black colleges receive for construction projects.
Then again, President Trump President Trump pledged “unwavering support” to historically black colleges days after those college leaders and advocates expressed alarm at his statements.
It all feels like some kind of kabuki theater, swinging back and forth between realities that as a politician, Donald Trump found little support among black voters, but then, there is this thing about being president in which he is supposed to appear helpful.
Not much has changed over the summer, since May when President Trump basically attacked historically black colleges, threatening to withhold federal supporting funds for construction on those campuses, saying that his spending decisions would not favor one racial group over another. Specifically, the President used a “signing statement” for the $1.1 trillion government spending bill to single out the Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program, a tiny slice, as an example of provisions in the funding bill “that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender.” (Signing statements often are used to underscore particular points that might otherwise escape immediate notice.)
Trump said his administration would treat those programs “in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the law under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.”
Trump has yet to assign an executive director to lead the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities — a position that is generally filled by the end of the summer. Nor has he appointed a single member to the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs.
It is important for us to realize that language is now merely a twistable weapon to be turned just for political purposes.
But it did strike me as an odd target since Mr. Trump had just made a photo-op show out of inviting the heads of these colleges to the Oval Office.
So, imagine my surprise, and yours, no doubt, to pick up the headline yesterday that Mr. Trump had backtracked over the weekend after there was an immediate and distinct questioning and protest, no uproar, from leaders of those exact historically black colleges. Mr. Trump declared on Sunday, after criticism, that his support for historically black colleges and universities remains “unwavering.”
Several black educators said they had been duped by the President’s earlier photo-op to believe him. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) and Rep. Cedric Richmond, (D-La), head of the House black caucus, were among public critics for the president’s decision to single out black colleges for criticism. For a president who pledged to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities, this statement is stunningly careless and divisive. We urge him to reconsider immediately,” the lawmakers said.
Politico quoted Cheryl Smith, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, also known as UNCF, which advocates for private HBCUs, who said the organization is “puzzled by this provision and seeking clarification from the White House as to its meaning.” Smith noted that the federal designation of an institution as an HBCU is not based on race, but rather on mission, accreditation status and the year the institution was established. She speculated that the “signing statement may simply be the Office of Management and Budget being overly cautious and perhaps not fully understanding this important distinction as it relates to HBCUs, but UNCF needs more information regarding their thinking and intent.”
Black colleges are open to white applicants, of course.
Since 1992, the U.S. Education Department has provided federally backed loans to historically black colleges for the construction ranging between $20 million and $280 million in federal loan subsidies.
In the new statement, Trump said it was “my intention to spend the funds it appropriates, including the funds for historically black colleges and universities, consistently with my responsibilities under the Constitution. It does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also issued a statement saying that she is a “strong supporter” of historically black colleges and praised the president for clarifying the administration’s position. “I will continue to be an advocate for them and for programs that make higher education more accessible to all students,” DeVos said, adding that she will deliver a commencement address later this week at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university founded in Daytona Beach, Florida, by civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
This is the same DeVos who came under fire in February for calling historically black colleges and universities “real pioneers” of school choice, before reversing course and acknowledging that they came about because of segregation and racism.
In its coverage, The New York Times suggested that this was another case of disunity within the White House team with cross-messaging.
Are we clear now?