One debate that continually proves to be invalid is the constant comparison of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to predominately White institutions (PWIs). Oftentimes these discussions, sparked by individuals who are unfamiliar with higher education or the history of higher education, put forth ideas or pose questions that are grounded in nothing more than opinion sprinkled with skewed facts. In turn, forcing current HBCU students, alumni, supporters, and advocates to become reactionary and defensive, holding up the unique purpose and continued relevancy of HBCUs, quashing the comparisons to PWIs. The main context of the debate is typically centered in the secondary status awarded by social constructionism to HBCUs in comparison with PWIs, though the mission and historical context of the institutions are distinctly different. These debates, dominated by elitist thinking, created an unequal standard that postulates PWIs as the premier educational standard and HBCUs as second-rate institutions. What makes an Ivy League institution the best decision for Black brilliance? Who determined that a PWI is synonymous with the standard of education? Who brainwashed Black people into thinking that PWIs are the epitome of success?
Carter G. Woodson argued and warned in The Mis-Education of the Negro, that the [White] schools that we are sending our children to are slowly educating them away from themselves. Woodson also confesses that he once believed in the necessity of what we now regard as “Eurocentric education” ─ education that is centered on the past, present, and future European people. However, upon being schooled and socialized in these systems, Black students were taught that moving from their communities in search of “better” lives or returning to their communities after being “educated” would help revitalize and improve those same communities.
The erasure of the notion that Black-serving, Black-managed or Black-owned is inferior has to start within the Black community. Once, we as a community, stop romanticizing the idea of White being the standard, we can create our own internal validity markers. This includes how we view and respect our schools including HBCUs. Which, in effect, ends the need to constantly compare HBCUs to PWIs. James Baldwin refusing to accept the discursive thought of White standard said, “[T]he world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.” What if Black people stopped engaging in the HBCU/PWI debate and focused instead on the accomplishments of HBCUs? What does it look like to esteem these HBCUs, which are pivotal in the construction of the Black community and specialize in the genius and intellect of Black students?
HBCUs have, for generations, excelled at sharpening the brilliance of Black children and emerging adults while embracing cultural competence without disregard to other systems or viewpoints. This is not to say that Black students cannot thrive and successfully complete degrees at PWIs or that HBCUs are perfect institutions deficient of issues or concerns. We do however assert that HBCUs are not in competition with PWIs to prove that they are viable. This is not their mission. Somewhere we have been socialized to believe that they are an alternative option in higher education, instead of the pillars of training and education that were established to serve the Black community. HBCUs were created as a path during the incredulous practice of education for place. Given no other option for schooling and advanced training, HBCUs became the way out of no way. An answer to the prayers that many individuals, families, and communities prayed for. As we continue to shift our thinking, we ask a final question ─ what does it look like to honor the purpose of HBCUs without the standard of Whiteness or White supremacy as the guide for assessing the relevance, purpose, and evaluation of their mission in the education of Black students?
Janelle L. Williams is the Assistant Director for Health Policy at The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and a Visiting Scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. In addition, she currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Cheyney University Foundation.
Treya Allen currently serves as a senior academic advisor at the University of Arizona. Her scholarship centers on elevating Black scholars and families through culturally relevant ways of knowing -both ancestral and generational found- within the Black community. She is the curator of underground retention programs for Black scholars at the collegiate level and an independent learning specialist for students in K-12. Her mission is to empower parents as the first teacher of their children and to see Black children soar academically, socially, and developmentally. You can find her on Instagram @justtreya or on Twitter @T2Allen.