Saturday, March 04, 2017

7 Minutes and a Photo Op: Were HBCU Leaders Misled?

HBCU leaders stand with Trump as Kellyanne Conway
looks up etiquette on her cell phone
Like many people who don't consider themselves fans of the Trump administration, I must confess that I had mixed feelings about the decision by the leaders of America's Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU's) to visit the White House on Monday.

My initial reaction was shaped by the divisive nature of 45's toxic campaign rhetoric and the numerous culturally insensitive comments he's made in person and online.

And his overt pandering to racists.

After all, Trump is the same guy who famously spent well over a year aggressively promoting the bogus (and overtly racist) disproved right-wing nut-job conspiracy propaganda that President Obama was not born in the United States.

Remember back in September 2012 when Trump made a complete ass of himself with his videotaped recording of his offer to donate $5 million to charity if Obama proved he was born in Hawaii like some kind of cheap carny huckster?

So when I heard the news earlier this week that the HBCU leaders had accepted an invitation to attend a special sit-down "listening session" with the controversial new secretary of education Betsy DeVos, I was pretty skeptical.

The resident White House bungler adviser Kellyanne Conway fulfilled my low expectations for this meet-and-greet when she was photographed in the Oval Office casually seated on the couch with her legs exposed and her feet curled up under her tapping away on her cell phone as a roomful of formerly-dressed African-American college presidents and leaders posed with Trump while he signed yet another executive order.  

Given the formal setting in the Oval Office, the fact that the meeting took place during Black History Month, the larger historical context of HBCU leaders collectively paying a visit to the White House and the Trump administration's historically low approval ratings with African-Americans, Conway's puzzling decision to sit on the couch like she was at home in her living room was a remarkable display of lack of basic manners and etiquette.

Howard president Wayne Frederick (right) poses with
with Betsy DeVos at a Feb 22nd meeting at Howard
The optics of the widely-circulated image only served to reinforce the reputation of the Trump administration as being totally out of touch with, and contemptuous of, African-Americans.

Oh and that listening session with education secretary Betsy DeVos that was supposedly the entire focus of the White House visit?

It never actually happened.

Which really isn't all that surprising.

As an article posted on the NPR Website this morning reported, the actual listening session was interrupted when a White House staff member entered the room and invited the gathered HBCU leaders to step into the Oval Office for an unscheduled meeting with Trump.

NPR quoted a Medium article in which the president of Dillard University Walter Kimbrough said:

"There was very little listening to HBCU presidents today - we were only given about two minutes each, and that was cut short to one minute, so only seven of maybe fifteen or so speakers were given an opportunity today."

A minute each? Was that the Oscars?

Clearly fifteen people could not speak for thirty minutes each, but come on man, one minute is barely enough time for someone to introduce themselves.

Now obviously I cannot speak for everyone, but my sense is that the average reasonable person would agree that a White House event billed as a "listening session" with fifteen or so college and university leaders and the secretary of education should last a lot longer than ten or fifteen minutes.

U.S. Marshals escort James Meredith, the first
black student at Ole Miss, to classes in 1962
Particularly given the historical context of systematic discrimination in access to education in the U.S.

To top that off, DeVos, a billionaire who has spent decades and millions of dollars promoting charter schools and private religious schools in an effort to undermine American public schools, made yet another embarrassing cultural faux pas when she used her remarks after the meeting to promote her personal school choice agenda.

DeVos, who also took flak back on February 12th when the Dept. of Education misspelled the name of the famed African-American author and sociologist W.E.B Du Bois in a Twitter message then sent out an apology with another spelling error, demonstrated an alarming lack of knowledge of history by suggesting that HBCU's were an example of the success of school choice when she said:

"HBCU's are real pioneers of school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater equality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish."

Actually Betsy, the 107 HBCU's that still exist today are not "pioneers of school choice."

They are an important historical legacy of the institutionalized racism that systematically blocked African-Americans from attending many colleges and universities in the 18th and 19th centuries.

They were first formed back in 1837 starting with Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, but most were formed starting after the Civil War ended in 1865.

HBCU's were formed 27 years after Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862 (which mandated federal funds to create land grant colleges for each state) in response to the Agricultural College Act of 1890 which, according to Wikipedia, required "states to establish a separate land grant college for blacks if blacks were being excluded from the existing land grant colleges." 

Which, in most parts of America, they were.
Graffiti on a Howard University sidewalk
Until HBCU's were formed, black students were completely excluded from attending colleges in the southern U.S.

My father graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in the 1950's, the first HBCU to open in the south in 1865 - it was founded by an Amherst graduate who fought for the Union during the Civil War named Henry Martin Tupper.

My father's experiences as a student at Shaw were absolutely central to his development as a man and later success as a professional.

So my guess is that he would have supported the decision by the HBCU leaders to visit the White House.

But reaction from other HBCU alumni and current students has been mixed.

This morning the New York Times reported about some of the backlash from HBCU students and alumni - including graffiti scrawled on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. criticizing president Wayne Frederick as the "overseer" of "the Trump plantation."

Students from various HBCU's have expressed criticism on social media of their respective leaders meeting with a president who has surrounded himself with advisers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller.

Men who now shape White House domestic policy and have also openly espoused racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant beliefs and who are also personally linked with known white supremacists.      

But not all HBCU students and alumni were critical of the HBCU leader's White House visit.

Morgan State University in Baltimore
This morning I spoke with a woman who graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore, which was founded by Methodists in 1867.

She has her masters in education and worked as a public school administrator for years, and her view was that it was important for the HBCU leaders to attend that meeting, regardless of what happened or the reactions on social media.

Or the media's coverage of it.

This HBCU alumnus was adamant that federal funding for HBCU's is absolutely critical, and that given the challenges that HBCU's face in raising money, those leaders had a responsibility to take advantage of any opportunity to convey the importance of those institutions directly to the secretary of education or the president - whoever that might be.

She also shrewdly noted that HBCU's need to be directly involved with the upcoming midterm Congressional elections - as the battle for federal funding for higher education is really fought in the trenches of Congressional appropriations.

So I find my initial skepticism of the visit tempered somewhat by the bigger picture.

When viewed in the historical and political context, my sense is that it took courage for the leaders of those schools to collectively show up to the White House to represent the interests of HBCU's and their students, faculty, employees and alumni.

They know who Trump is, and they knew they would catch heat for going to the White House, but they were able to put aside their personal political views or opinions, be professionals first and show up.

And in my view that took courage.

So we'll soon see if Congress backs up Trump's show of support for HBCU's with funding for Pell Grants for lower income students and other federal support.

Even if that listening session with the secretary of education was intentionally cut short to get a photo op of those HBCU leaders in the Oval Office with the president, to be fair to Trump, there isn't a president I know of who wouldn't make sure to get that photo op.

So after thinking about it, my sense is that it was important for those HBCU leaders to be photographed in that room - especially with this particular president.

In this case I think the optics were important for both sides.

It's just a shame that Kellyanne Conway couldn't muster the decency and respect to stand up for what those leaders represent.

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