Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were created in response to the Jim Crow laws in the South that mandated enforced segregation. These laws institutionalized educational disadvantages, resulting in shutting out black students from traditionally white schools. They were created in slave states after the Civil War.
Last week I watched the video of Betsy DeVos giving a commencement speech at Bethune- Cookman University which is an HBCU. In the video, students stand and turn their backs to DeVos in peaceful protest. This controversy arose over statements DeVos made in February to a group of HBCU leaders. According to Douglas-Gabriel and Jan (2017) of the Washington Post, after a meeting with HBCU leaders, DeVos praised their schools for identifying “a system that wasn’t working” and taking it upon themselves to provide the solution. DeVos said HBCUs “started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education.” She said HBCUs are “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality” (Washington Post).
Tweets poked fun of her characterization of HBCUs as about school choice— “as if white/colored water fountains were about beverage options” and comparing the Montgomery bus boycott to “pioneering new scenic walking paths.” (Washington Post).
Selena Hill of Huewire said, “This display of public outrage should serve as a wake-up call to DeVos and the Trump administration: It’s going to take a lot more than photo ops and empty speeches to win over black students. Black institutions deserve protection, more federal funding, and better public schools that prepare students of color for college. Anything less is unacceptable” (Huewire).
Some say the protest was appalling, disrespectful-saying students should have their diplomas taken away, and should have used this as an opportunity for engagement and discussion with the Secretary.
I’ll play devil’s advocate. What if what DeVos was saying is that HBCUs were “pioneers of school choice” because black students weren’t afforded an education due to segregation so they found a solution to a problem and created colleges and universities with opportunities for learning. She might think they were pioneers, but at the same time she has oversimplified racial segregation, the Fourteenth Amendment and discrimination.
Putting the past aside is one thing – understanding the past is another. Equating discrimination and segregation to pioneering choice fails to acknowledge the discrimination in the first place. Blacks were forced to create their own schools because the laws of this country did not protect them- in fact Jim Crow Laws supported discrimination and segregation.
I’m reminded of recent comments by HUD Secretary Ben Carson who said slavery was considered “hope for freedom”, and slaves were “immigrants coming to a land of dreams and opportunity.” If I remember correctly, slaves were forced into a life of servitude-often abusive, always inhumane. They were not here by choice, nor did they have much opportunity. DeVos’ statement about choice and Carson’s statement about slavery ignore reality. From their perspective, DeVos and Carson thought they were speaking the truth. It’s hard for me to interpret their words as anything other than ignorance. George Santayana said it best, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
My guess is the Secretary was not randomly selected to give the commencement address at Bethune- Cookman, nor was she shocked by the reaction from the students. I would bet money this was as contrived as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. This was a planned visit, a canned speech, and likely nothing more than a publicity stunt. I would also guess that DeVos had no idea what an HBCU was before taking office-but maybe was schooled just after she learned she was giving the address.
The #1 rule of public speaking is to know your audience.
These are my reflections for today.