Seven generations after the founding of our first historically black colleges and universities, they are still dependent on the whims of white philanthropy, just begging smarter and/or harder. If black leaders won't pick the necessary fight and demand higher ed as a human right for everybody HBCUs will not survive the current crisis. Do they have the vision, the will, the courage? Do we?
Back in the 1860s the first of our historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs were founded with dollars from white philanthropists. In the six or seven generations since we like to think we've come a long way. But have we really? The United Negro College Fund's eager acceptance of a $25 million dollar “gift” from the notorious Koch brothers ought to make us all wonder whether we're really movin' on up, or moving backward, and why.
By the 1960s and 70s, federal tax dollars were a substantial and rising portion of funding at HBCUs. That was real progress, because public funding of black higher education implies a public commitment, rather than dependence on the fickle whims of the wealthy. But college tuition has ballooned one thousand percent since 1978, and federal funding has not kept pace. Today's students are burdened by onerous debt which lenders have used their political influence to compound and make bankruptcy-proof. Higher education is in now danger of becoming an inherited privilege of well-off families, social mobility in the US is at an historic low. Instead of looking for ways to target increased funding to historically black colleges and universities, the Obama administration has made it harder for black families to qualify for college loans, causing thousands of young African Americans to forgo their dreams of higher education.
With historically black colleges and universities in a deep fiscal and strategic hole, accepting $25 million from the evil Koch brothers is not evidence of sagacity, pragmatism or wisdom. It's a decision to dig that hole even deeper.
If the gaggle of politicians, preachers, academics and business types who pass themselves off as our black leadership class possessed a shred of political imagination and moral courage they would study up, they would talk up, they would committeefy and they would help call into existence a movement demanding higher education as a human right and free college tuition for everybody. It's not an impossible dream – other countries, relatively civilized places less wealthy than the US like France and Norway already do this. A movement demanding free higher education and forgiveness of outstanding student debt, funded by taxing the rich instead of borrowing from or begging them is the kind of inspiring vision that could put tens or hundreds of thousands in the streets demanding real change. It could mobilize churches and unions, small towns and big cities, the young and the old, and make no mistake, it's the only way HBCUs will be rescued from this crisis with any integrity. Over half of black college grads are now working in jobs that don't even require a college education.
Begging harder or smarter, or being willing to accept funding from even more devilish devils is not the solution of visionary leaders. It's the refuge of lazy hypocrites and cowards.
Progress, as Frederick Douglass told us, only comes with struggle. Real leaders know how to envision the world as it should be and articulate that inspiring vision to the masses. They know when to demand what is NOT being offered, and how to pick a fight, because we cannot win what we will not fight for.
Education, including higher education is a human right. If we want HBCUs to survive the current crisis, it's time to stop begging and pick a fight. It's time to demand free higher education financed by federal tax dollars, and forgiveness of student loans. If our black misleadership class cannot get with that, it's time to sweep them to the side.
For Black Agenda Radio, I'm Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com, and be sure to subscribe to our free weekly email updates at www.blackagendareport.com/subscribe.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party.
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