HBCUs, From Inclusion to Empowerment — a Catalyst for Change

Aerial view of Fisk University in Nashville, TN

By Dr. Van Newkirk and Dr. Jens Frederiksen

These are turbulent times as the country struggles to address the tension of an increasingly diverse population and mounting division. The beautiful and complex mosaic of our modern society continually encounters the familiar foes of

Dr. Vann Newkirk

inequality and exclusion.

Demographic trends notwithstanding, the world of tomorrow will continue to struggle against the world of today. By all indications, we are headed for a minority/majority world, but we continue to ignore racial and economic inequalities.

W.E.B DuBois famously termed this cluster of social problems “The Race Problem,” and for all the apparent progress, there is still much to be done.

The ever-increasing expression of overt xenophobia — coupled with the imminent transition to a minority white society, as people of color become the emerging majority — only further exposes the systemic racism and exclusion ingrained in the world around us. At a time when feelings of divisiveness and contention

Dr. Jens Frederiksen
Courtesy of Fisk

dominate the public lexicon, we posit that there is one resource that continues to support those most marginalized: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The term “HBCU” was created by the Higher Education Act of 1965. The term applied to any historically black college or university established before 1964 and specifically, dedicated to the education and professional success of young African Americans.

Today, more than 100 HBCUs continue to operate around the country, making a name for themselves both in the political and cultural sphere for their important role in uplifting the African American community through educational and social empowerment.

Although HBCUs comprise 3 percent of the country’s colleges and universities, they enroll 10 percent of African Americans and produce almost 20 percent of all African American graduates. Of total alumni, HBCUs help produce 40 percent of African American engineers, 50 percent of African American lawyers, 80 percent of African American judges, and 70 percent of African American Physicians and Dentists.

For more than 150 years, HBCUs have paved the way for African American success. Why and how is it that HBCUs are uniquely positioned to help address the tension between diversity and division and, by extension, the deep systemic inequalities that undermine a just society? To answer this question, it is critical to understand educational exclusion as one important symptom of the deeper foundational problem.

The educational problem

Despite the shifting demographic trends, societal inequality — particularly as it relates to education — continues to persist today. Predominantly non-white school districts currently receive $23 billion less in funding than predominantly white school districts in the United States — despite having the same number of students. Moreover, due to a plethora of testing, psycho-social and economic barriers, white students are 1.8 times as likely as African American students to be accepted in an advanced placement class and are 6 percent more likely to get into college (42 percent vs. 36 percent). It’s a problem that reduces the opportunity to prepare the next generation for positions of leadership and reveals a deeper racial, economic and historical exclusion.

We’re living in a modern-day form of educational segregation that underscores an important disparity between inclusion and empowerment. While it’s certainly true that most well-intentioned institutions have become more inclusive, it’s also true that many are failing to recognize how a culture of empowerment plays a vital role in helping African Americans position themselves for social, economic and cultural success. Without highlighting these key issues, we risk slowing, or even impeding societal progress, helping to fuel a cycle of resentment.

The HBCU solution

This is where HBCUs come into play. For students currently attending HBCUs, simply having the opportunity to be surrounded by fellow students or role models who share in their lived experiences can pay dividends in educational and, eventually, professional performance.

As presciently described by Signithia Fordham’s 1988 Theory of Racelessness, African Americans have long felt they must suppress their racial identity in order to achieve success, particularly in education. This is why HBCUs play such a vital role in promoting the psychological empowerment of African Americans. By creating an environment that uplifts, instead of merely accepts, African American achievement, HBCUs have spent decades carving out spaces in education that empower generations of Black leaders to succeed — transcending racial, ethnic, and economic divides along the way. And the results speak for themselves: according to gallup, Black HBCU graduates are far more likely to strongly agree that their colleges prepared them for life after graduation (55 percent) than black graduates of other institutions (29 percent).

We propose that amid the heightened focus surrounding issues such as education reform and racial inequality, it’s time to tackle the achievement gap and pave the way for a better future. As highlighted by grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, the general public is growing increasingly frustrated with the status quo and is actively looking for avenues to promote racial equality in American society. Education is only one vehicle by which to begin addressing systemic inequality — and higher education in the form of HBCUs is only a subset of this vehicle. That said, education is perhaps the most transcendent and powerful of all vehicles, and HBCUs have a proven record of improving racial, social, and economic inequalities.

Institutions like Fisk University in Nashville have continually been at the forefront of critical moments in American history. From its Civil War inception to its inspiring role in the Great Depression, and its profound impact on the Harlem Renaissance, Fisk has always strived to create a better world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Fisk’s unparalleled impact on the civil rights movement and global race relations during the 1960s and ’70s. Like many other HBCUs, Fisk has always been and continues to be an enclave of empowerment and by extension, an extraordinary reservoir of promise for our society.

• But none of this success is possible without significant support. With comparatively minimal resources, HBCUs have helped transform the fabric of American life. The recent $120 Million donation by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillin tripled the single largest gift ever given to any HBCU; more is needed and now is the moment, as so many are looking for tangible ways to address racial inequality.

Financial support of HBCUs is one very real way to make a significant and lasting impact. With renewed focus, energy, and investment, we can spark real change and continued progress to elevate society beyond the conversation of inclusion to actionable empowerment — empowerment that catalyzes change.

Dr. Vann Newkirk is Fisk University’s interim president. Dr. Jens Frederiksen, Ph.D., is executive vice president for institutional advancement at Fisk University.

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