Black Colleges and Universities: Don’t Take Trump and DeVos At Face Value

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Black Colleges and Universities: Don’t Take Trump and DeVos At Face Value

Imani Gandy

The White House is teeming with white nationalists, the commander-in-chief rose to fame on TV and birther claims about the first Black president, and a not-quite "Apprentice" is advising the administration on your schools.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump asked Black voters, “What do you have to lose?” and urged them to vote for him.

Barely 100 days into his presidency, he seems intent on showing Black people exactly what we have to lose during his administration. And it’s not pretty.

On Friday night, Trump issued a signing document that sent leaders and advocates for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) into a tizzy. He mentioned a key HBCU funding source as one of several funding streams that “allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender” and then signaled that he may think such funding is unconstitutional. Trump said that his administration would treat these streams “in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.”

What set HBCUs abuzz was his inclusion of the Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program, which the U.S. Congress approved in 1992 in order to fund the repair, renovation, and construction of classrooms, laboratories, libraries, and the like by offering low-cost loans to the institutions. The program was created through the Higher Education Act of 1965, in the wake of congressional findings that HBCUs often face significant challenges in accessing traditional funding resources at reasonable rates. Since its creation, the financing program has made loans to 45 HBCUs, and currently, 40 colleges and universities have loan amounts ranging from $7.5 million to $165 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s no secret that many HBCUs have been financially strapped for decades: They have fewer resources, smaller endowments, and less money coming from alumni donations and public funding than predominantly white institutions do. The per-student funding disparities can be stark, especially for public HBCUs. For example, as Donald Mitchell Jr, pointed out in a 2013 article for the Journal of Education Policy, the University of North Carolina flagship in Chapel Hill received $15,700 in state funding per student in one recent year. During that same year, North Carolina A&T University, a large HBCU in the same system, received only $7,800 in state funding per student.

With such funding disparities, HBCUs sometimes struggle to maintain the sort of infrastructure necessary to provide quality education to existing students and to recruit new students, according to a 2014 report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. In today’s technology boom, HBCUs are fighting to find money for increased bandwidth and Wi-Fi hot spots as well as innovative ways to keep up with the technological Joneses.

The capital financing program was built with these sorts of infrastructure needs in mind. And given that HBCUs were founded during segregation—because white institutions wouldn’t admit Black students—many of them began without proper funding in the first place.

Apparently, that doesn’t matter to Trump.

But the outcry was swift and immediate among those who actually understand the law and care about HBCUs.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (MI), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-LA), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, issued a joint statement calling Trump’s statement “misinformed factually” and “not grounded in any serious constitutional analysis.”

“For a president who pledged to reach out to African Americans and other minorities, this statement is stunningly careless and divisive,” they wrote, according to Politico.

“Another example of what we have to lose. @realDonaldTrump I guess it was just a photo op. #StayWoke #HBCUS,” the Congressional Black Caucus tweeted, referencing a photo op between Trump and a group of HBCU leaders in late February. That photo op cut short a meeting that one university president, Dr. Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University in New Orleans, intended to use as an opportunity to educate Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on HBCUs and higher education.

“I would rather have Trump do nothing with HBCUs—not even know they exist,” Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania education professor and one of the leading scholars on HBCUs, told the Washington Post.

“He will see them as a handout. He doesn’t understand that he was given a leg up by his rich father. He doesn’t see that other people need help from programs because of past discrimination and inequity,” Gasman continued.

On Saturday, the White House reportedly said that Trump’s comments in the signing statement did not signal immediate policy changes, but were simply meant to preserve the president’s legal options in the future.

And then on Sunday, Trump issued a statement in another attempt to calm the chum-filled waters:

The statement that accompanied my signing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, sets forth my intention to spend the funds it appropriates, including the funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), consistently with my responsibilities under the Constitution. It does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions. 

Well as long as Trump unwaveringly supports HBCUs and their critical education missions, we shouldn’t be bothered when Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the man who was too racist to be a federal judge during the Reagan administration but who is now just racist enough for the Trump administration, tells him that allocating funds to HBCUs but not predominantly white colleges is a constitutional crisis.

Don’t worry: Trump’s support will still be unwavering. He just won’t put any money up to back that support.

Betsy DeVos also released a statement in which she expressed her happiness that Trump reaffirmed his support for HBCUs and said that she is “a strong supporter of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the critical role they play in communities and in our higher education system.”

Ever the Charlie Brown to Trump’s football-wielding Lucy, some HBCU advocates have decided that now’s not the time to panic.

“We’re not overly alarmed at this point, based on informal reassurances and just our own knowledge of how these funding statement[s] get put together,” Cheryl L. Smith, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, told The Washington Post.

Similarly, Johnny Taylor, president of HBCU advocacy group the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said in a statement on Saturday that he had received assurances that “there was absolutely no plan to eliminate or challenge this program.”

“We have shared with the White House our assertion that the HBCU program is not at all a race-based government effort and therefore doesn’t raise any equal protection or due process concerns because participation in the program is limited to HBCUs,” Taylor continued.

With all due respect to UNCF, Taylor, and any other HBCU advocate swayed by Trump’s “informal reassurances” and “unwavering support,” it’s long past time to worry and panic.

You cannot take anything that Donald Trump says at face value or as true. He will surround himself with Black people, call half of them “my African-American” as if he owns them or picked them out at Old Navy; tweet about how all of “his” African-Americans are tremendous; and then screw you anyway. To be sure, it is unlikely that any of these HBCU leaders actually believe Trump will help them, but their politic responses mask the impolitic nature of what seems to be a veiled attack on HBCU funding.

They can’t even rely on having a strong advocate within the cabinet. Do you know who is advising the Education Department on issues related to HBCUs? Omarosa Manigault. What in Ms. Manigault’s work history suggests that she is in any way qualified to advise Trump on education issues? She has a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and, save a brief stint as a 23-year-old working in Vice President Al Gore’s office during the Clinton administration, has spent most of her adult life collaborating with Trump on various reality TV shows.

It doesn’t exactly breed confidence (though she did attend historically Black colleges, and that seems to suffice for the president).

And those twin say-nothing press releases that Trump and DeVos issued on Sunday? Both statements feature prominently DeVos’ upcoming commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a Florida HBCU founded by education and civil rights activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. The speech has sparked campus protests by students presumably irritated about being used as a prop for the Trump administration to demonstrate his “unwavering support” for his tremendous African-Americans and still gobsmacked by DeVos’ foolish comments that HBCUs were established in the spirit of school choice and not because white people refused to let Black people go to school with them.

Trump and DeVos’ statements amounted to a lot of handwaving about the HBCU budgets and informal reassurances of unwavering support, followed by a “Look over there! Bethune-Cookman!” misdirect.

Enough is enough. It’s time for the leaders and presidents of historically Black colleges and universities to stop falling for the okey doke when it comes to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.

The White House is teeming with white nationalists. Donald Trump, who spent six years down a racist rabbit hole of birtherism, is likely one bad news cycle away from asking on national television why there isn’t a White Entertainment Television or designating a 31-day month as White History Month.

This is not a man who intends to do anything to help Black people in this country. The sooner everyone realizes it, the better off we’ll all be.