“Since the structure of the black university is based upon the structure of the white, it too reinforces the system,” wrote Tuskegee, Alabama, student Ernest Stephens in a 1967 essay critiquing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and their institutional orientation to the white supremacist status quo. Nearly 60 years later, this argument still holds up as a prescient rumination on the problems of HBCUs as they remain steadfast in their commitment to upholding an anti-Black social order.
These institutions of higher learning were primarily created in response to racist backlash in the 19th and 20th centuries and as a way of giving Black people safe environments to access education and obtain skills necessary to help secure jobs. Today they are seen as valuable options that allow first-generation, poor, and middle-class students to receive an education, specifically a Black education, in a “safe space.” But safe for whom? And what type of “education” are people obtaining? Too often, these spaces uphold housing insecurity, rape culture, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia—central tenets of a white supremacist cisheteropatriarchal order. The education students receive obviously varies, but they are learning—whether through networking opportunities or the classroom—how to assimilate into white power structures.
Graduating from an HBCU has become a valuable resumé credential for those wanting to flex a pro-Black bonafide. Unsurprisingly, those who have this credential and attempt to work within the apparatus of the state continually take stances that are anti-Black.
One of the most important fights happening in the U.S. right now is unfolding in the Weelaunee Forest near Atlanta, where the movement to Stop Cop City intensifies each day. Cop City is a $90 million police training facility. On Jan. 18 the police assassinated forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, and forest defenders and protesters have been charged with domestic terrorism. The presidents of both Spelman College and Morehouse College—HBCUs that are a part of the Atlanta University Center (AUC)—are on the Atlanta Committee for Progress, which advises Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and approves of Cop City. While the committee hasn’t directly funded Cop City, Morehouse students have demanded that the city’s $30 million of funding be reallocated. Recently, a viral video of AUC students demanding the schools denounce Cop City after the death of Tortuguita, along with a faculty letter opposing the police facility, prompted Mayor Dickens to call for a closed-door meeting at Morehouse with no press present.
The meeting was a feeble attempt at damage control, and it was also patronizing to students, many of whom continued to demand that Morehouse President David Thomas denounce Cop City. But Thomas refused. He continues to support Cop City and the growing police state even after two AUC students were brutalized on TV during the 2020 uprisings and protests. This is indicative of how these schools and their leadership will routinely side with white supremacist institutions over the demands of students and faculty.
Thomas’ stance is the result of the liberal commitment to reform over abolition. The commitment to so-called pragmatism in the face of constant state-sanctioned violence is an illustration of the belief that liberation will come with more Black faces in institutions never meant for us. The argument that police only need more training or more diversity has always been an asinine myth. The recent brutal murder of Tyre Nichols only further delegitimizes the position of reformers.
While the creation of HBCUs is admirable, it should be fair to say the goal was never to liberate Black people or truly challenge the anti-Black, colonial framework of the country. This became even more obvious during the neoliberal turn and subsequent corporatization of higher learning. Down with reading theory or understanding the true history of movement activism, and up with the entrepreneurial spirit!
Attending an HBCU can both symbolize your pro-Blackness and be a marker of being higher class, especially when attending the more prestigious Black colleges. These schools, such as Howard, Morehouse, and Spelman, frequently attract more students thanks to how they market themselves as producers of future leaders of the Black community. They are frequently dubbed “Black Ivy Leagues,” a clear example of wanting to simply mirror white structures with Black folks. Many students come to these schools to climb the social ladder, become wealthy, and help the “Black community” all at the same time. This naivete fuels graduates’ belief that they can change inherently racist institutions from the inside. Yet, these same entities destroy Black institutions and movements from the inside-out. These realities do not matter to reform-minded people because they either lack the imagination to desire a better world or have a vested interest in maintaining the current order.
While this is not indicative of all students, too many willingly accept the assertion that more Black leaders will solve issues of anti-Blackness, and HBCUs promote this lie incessantly. Just look at Atlanta, New York, and Chicago: all cities with Black mayors who support state forces and policies to the detriment of the Black populations that call those places home. Historically, one can look at the MOVE bombing approved by a Black mayor. Black people in positions of power are reforms in and of themselves, yet continuously demonstrate the anti-Black, capitalist violence that reifies these structures. This isn’t specific to the U.S.
As Da’Shaun Harrison wrote in 2020 regarding protests in Nigeria against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), “Black leadership cannot and won’t save Black people as long as anti-Black capitalism is a global phenomenon.” Did reforms end the racial wealth gap? Nope. Did reforms stop the continuous police murder of civilians, specifically Black and other non-white people? No. And when a movement arose in protest of these killings in 2020, Black leadership was among the first to help undermine more radical demands to defund or abolish the police. The use of Black leaders always serves to legitimize the state, as Harrison points out, and will only continue as initiatives grow to make the death-dealing of the state more digestible because at least it will not be led by white, cis men all the time. Progress.
Across HBCUs, the state recruits future Black leaders. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigations is invited to campuses. The FBI also conducts recruitment tours at HBCUs, and schools like Jackson State University partner with the department to add “diversity to the agency.” Other organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense—perpetrators of wide-scale harm against Black people outside of the imperial core—have also taken to recruiting at HBCUs to fulfill their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. In January, Howard University was awarded a $90 million research contract with the Department of Defense to help the imperialist war machine.
In this neoliberal era where activism and social justice have been commodified, it is important to discern the true nature of existing structures. Plenty of students, faculty, and movements have emerged from Black campuses with revolutionary intentions. However, HBCUs are counterrevolutionary forces designed to pacify Black students and limit actual liberatory efforts. Representation and reform are not the goals—and any real program dedicated to ending anti-Blackness understands that.