For the past week, as the situation at the University of Missouri – Columbia has unfolded, there has been a constant refrain that has been propagated through social media, on news media, and in other outlets. The chant is sometimes antagonistic, but it has occasionally been suggested in a well-meaning, even sympathetic way:
“Don’t like racism? Maybe you should go to a black school.”
“Tired of oppression? Come to an HBCU!”
“I’m so glad I went to [Insert name of HBCU], so I don’t have to deal with racist [students/faculty/administration/society]!”
Stop facilitating the culture of hatred by advocating for segregationism.
Stop antagonizing students that are in fear for their lives by suggesting that they should have surrounded themselves with black people.
Stop contrasting your experience at a Historically Black College or University, however positive and enriching it may have been, with the oppression that Black students at Predominantly White Institutions are struggling against every day.
It is not productive.
It is not supportive.
It is not helpful.
More importantly, it is not true.
However you feel about your HBCU experience, please disabuse yourself of the notion that these schools are free of systemic racial and societal oppression. Howard, Hampton, Spelman, Morehouse, Clark, Tuskegee–these institutions are not cures for the racial sickness that plagues our society; they are symptoms of it. HBCUs exist because of American racism, not in spite of it. No “safe space” exists for African-American students at Howard, because no safe spaces exist for African-Americans in America.
Blackness is defined by oppression, and our resistance to it. A group of black men at Morehouse is no more or less shielded from oppression than a group of black men being stopped and frisked in New York, shot in the chest Ferguson, or in the back in Charleston.
HBCUs, by their very nature, are, to some degree, beholden to the system of oppression that their students seek to subvert. Ask yourself, how quickly would the administration of any HBCU clamp down on student activism if the millions of federal dollars that make up close to a third of their budgets came under threat? Howard Students, remember when a student replaced the American flag with the Pan-African flag?
Remember the response?
Do you really think that this school, or any school, when forced to choose between protecting its financial interests and providing for student’s rights to protest is going to choose that latter?
This school is a great school with beautiful, intelligent, socially conscious, and civically engaged Black people. I fully support every intellectually curious Black student in the world getting the opportunity to attend an HBCU. But if you come here seeking to escape from white oppression rather than to discover black excellence, you will be sorely disappointed.
And as Howard University students, our role is not to pity the students at Mizzou, for the visceral hate they are forced to endure on a daily basis. Our role, as it has always been, is to support them and to stand in solidarity with them, whether our administration or society stands with us or not.