by Ray Von Robertson, Ph.D
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) face formidable challenges, including disdain from large segments of African Americans. “Why does such a large proportion, approximately 85%, of Black students attend PWIs” – predominantly white institutions? There are many reasons. For example, “rarely do young adults of African descent who attend PWIs realize that most acts of racism tend to be more subtle, institutionalized, and systemic.” There is also the persistence in Black communities of a “White is Right” ideology.
When White is Not Always Right: The Experience of Black Students at Predominantly White Institutions
by Ray Von Robertson, Ph.D
“Many Black families believe White knowledge is better knowledge.”
It is a well known fact that Black students perform better and graduate at higher rates at HBCUs (historically Black Colleges and Universities) than at Predominantly White institutions (PWIs). However, what remains interesting is why does such a large proportion, approximately 85%, of Black students attend PWIs?i To be fair, the scholarly literature points to several possible legitimate reasons. First, there are so many more White colleges than HBCUs. Second, many Black colleges are private, suffer from inadequate funding, and are in some instances more expensive than PWIs. Third, many PWIs, with more economic resources than most historically Black colleges, offer better facilities and amenities. Finally, and probably one of the least discussed reason, is that unfortunately, many Black families believe White knowledge is better knowledge. You know, the old self-hate thing.
As an academic who is a sociologist, and a critical race theorist (R.I.P. the late Derek Bell), and has taught at both a PWI and an HBCU, let me expound on some of the reasons, both scholarly and personal, that I believe our people, i.e., Black people, subscribe to the “White is Right” ideology.
We do not realize the depths and staying power of White supremacy
“Very few Black students have attended schools, at any level, that have made studying race critically part of the curriculum.”
What I mean by the aforementioned statement is that many Blacks would like to believe that we live in a color-blind society.ii However, every socioeconomic indicator, along with studies that have studied the attitudes of Whites towards African Americans, suggests otherwise .iii Further, very few Black students have attended schools, at any level, that have made studying race critically part of the curriculumiv. Not surprisingly, it can be assumed that most African Americans are aware of the overt and visceral manifestations of racism (e.g., police beatings of Blacks caught on tape). But due to the fact that the frequency of such forms of police malfeasance does not correspond with how often such incidents are caught on tape/video and proffered before the public for consumption, an intellectual malaise occurs when it comes to the relevance of overt racism in general, and racism itself, in particular.v The veracity of racism notwithstanding, rarely do young adults of African descent who attend PWIs realize that most acts of racism tend to be more subtle, institutionalized, and systemic and still significantly impact the life chances of African Americans.vi
We do not realize the importance of Black faculty and the relative dearth of Black faculty at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions)
Nationwide, the numbers of Black professors presents and appalling and bleak picture. African American professors represent 5.5% of collegiate faculty and an even more paltry 4% of tenured faculty across the United States.vii If a parent desires that his/her Black child encounter a Black professor who operates from an African center (even though such statistics are not kept) one can surmise that the percentage is considerably less than the previously mentioned 4%. Moreover, the numbers of Black professors at PWIs are very lowviii. Further exacerbating the dilemma of the small Black professoriate at PWIs are the numerous problems that they are confronted with. For example, research has shown that Black professors at PWIs endure the following challenges; 1) isolation from colleagues; 2) biased critiques of their classroom effectiveness by White students; 3) lower pay than their White counterparts; 4) marginalization of their research by White colleagues; 5) expectations of intellectual inferiority by White students and White faculty members; 6) less mentoring from White colleagues; 7) worse student evaluations than their White counterparts, especially when they have to teach classes focusing on race; 8) White students being more likely to express their disdain via internet sites or public venues; and 9) challenges to their authority and intellectual acumen.ix
“African American professors infuse information pertinent to the lives of Black students.”
Despite the aforementioned maladies, Black professors are a valued resource for Black students for myriad reasons. First, African American professors infuse information pertinent to the lives of Black students (e.g., topics like racism, discrimination, and inequality) into classroom discussions, assignments, and curricula.x The aforementioned becomes increasingly vital due to the fact that Black students at PWIs report frequently being spoken to with disrespect by White students and professors.xi Second, Black professors, when it comes to Black students, are better mentors and are more likely to genuinely care about Black students, and more likely to push them academically.xii
The previously alluded to factors serve to increase self-efficacy, i.e., the conviction in the individual's ability to execute the necessary patterns of action, which is more likely to result in optimal educational outcomes for Black students.xiii
The Persistence of Racial Incidents at PWIs
For the most part, the persistence of campus racism at PWIs remains an anomaly for most Black students and their parents at PWIsxiv. Relative recent racial incidents at Oklahoma State University, Auburn University, Michigan State University, the University of Toledo, and the University of Louisville (to name a few) can hardly be expected to deter Black parents from sending their children to the most exclusive PWI that their children can receive admission into. What does that say about us as a people? Do we desire token White acceptance to such an extent that Halloween parties in which White fraternities and sororities dress up like Klansmen and in Blackface (see Oklahoma State, my alma mater, and Auburn University) not mean anything to us? At what point do those who have entered the ancestral realm who fought for liberation (e.g., Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, John Henry Clarke, etc.) enter into our minds? Or, do they ever? I digress. Perhaps the only thought that enters our minds is whether Whites will pat us on the back/head and say “good Negro.” A sad state of affairs to say the least.
In closing, the value of an education cannot be accurately quantified. However, if we seek an education for our children it must be one in which the educators actually care for their welfare. Additionally, it must be African-centered, and it must imbue them with the spirit to fight for the economic, social, psychological, and spiritual liberation of our people. Now the aforementioned does not occur at every HBCU, and I am not suggesting that HBCUs are a panacea, but they are a step closer to that goal than PWIs. Consequently, a lot of work has to be done.
Ray Von Robertson, Ph.D is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Lamar University. He earned his Ph.D. at Oklahoma State University. He is a critical race theorist and has published scholarly articles on African American student social adjustment and retention at Predominantly White Institutions. He can be reached at [email protected].
iHoston, W., Graves, S., & Fleming-Randle, M. 2010. Individual practices to increase the graduation rate of African American students at predominantly White colleges and universities. The Journal of College Orientation and Transition, 18(1), 69-77.
iiWise, T. 2010. Colorblind: The rise of post-racial politics and the retreat from racial equity. San Francisco: City Lights.
iiiFeagin, J. 2010. Racist America: Roots, current realities and future reparations. 2Nd edition. New York: Routledge.
ivRobertson, R. & Mason, D. 2010 “What works? A qualitative examination of the factors related to the academic success of African American males at a predominantly White college in The South.” Challenge Journal. A Journal of Research on African American Men, 14, 67-89.
Wise, T. 2010.Colorblind: The rise of post-racial politics and the retreat from racial equity. San Francisco: City Lights.
vBonilla-Silva, E. 2009. Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. 3Rd edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
viFeagin, J. 2010. Racist America: Roots, current realities and future reparations. 2Nd edition. New York: Routledge.
viiPatton, L. & Catching, C. 2009. 'Teaching while Black': Narratives of African American student affairs faculty. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(6): 713-28.
viii Constantine, M.G. L. Smith, R.M. Reddington, and D. Owens. 2008. Racial microaggressions again black counseling and counseling psychology faculty: A central challenge in the multicultural counseling movement. Journal of Counseling and Development, 86(3): 348-55.
ixGuillory, E. 2001. The black professoriate: Explaining the salary gap for African American female professors. Race, Ethnicity, Education, 4(3): 129-48.
McGowan, J.M. 2000. African American faculty classroom teaching experiences in predominantly white colleges and universities. Multicultural Education, 8(2): 19-22.
Patton, L. & Catching, C. 2009. 'Teaching while Black': Narratives of African American student affairs faculty. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(6): 713-28.
Stanley, C.A. 2006. Coloring the academic landscape: Faculty of breaking the silence in predominantly White colleges and universities. American Educational Research Journal, 43(4): 701-36.
Weitz, R., & L. Gordon. 1993. Images of Black women among Anglo college students. Sex Roles, 28(1-2): 19-34.
xBush, E. & L. Bush 2010. Calling out the elephant: An examination of African American male achievement in community colleges. Journal of African American Males in Education, 1, 40-62.
Robertson, R. & Mason, D. 2010 “What works? A qualitative examination of the factors related to the academic success of African American males at a predominantly White college in The South.” Challenge Journal. A Journal of Research on African American Men, 14, 67-89.
xiSolorzano, D., M., Ceja, & T. Yosso. 2000. Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 69(1-2): 60-73.
Rodgers, K. & J. Summers 2008. African American students at predominantly White institutions: A motivational and self systems approach to understanding retention. Educational Psychology Review, 20(2): 171-190.
xiiGuiffrida, D.A. 2005b. To break away or strengthen ties to home: A complex question for African American students attending a predominantly White institution. Equity and Excellence in Education, 38(1): 49-60.
Thompson, G. & Louque, A. 2005. Exposing the “culture of arrogance” in the academy: A blueprint for increasing black faculty satisfaction in higher education. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.
xiii Rodgers, K. & J. Summers 2008. African American students at predominantly White institutions: A motivational and self systems approach to understanding retention. Educational Psychology Review, 20(2): 171-190.
xiv Robertson, R. & Mason, D. 2010 “What works? A qualitative examination of the factors related to the academic success of African American males at a predominantly White college in The South.” Challenge Journal. A Journal of Research on African American Men, 14, 67-89