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Burden of Diversity Yields Benefit of Attention for HBCUs

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Just under a year ago, attacks on America's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) became more frequent in the public media discourse. As HBCU constituents scrambled to defend their schools and malign writers like Jason Riley and Richard Vedder, HBCU advocates were able to find peace in an unintended result of the uniformed barrage: long-missing media attention for historically ignored institutions.

The national flash of media exposure for HBCUs has since died down, once again relegating these schools to a place far and comfortably out of the spotlight for those unfamiliar with what they are and whom they serve. But there remains a strong need for the country to get know HBCUs beyond why they were started, and an even stronger need for a national primer on why every American should be invested in their growth.

There is no benefit to rehashing the history of HBCUs, but there is some benefit to revisiting why desegregation in American higher education has not mirrored the incremental success of desegregation in American arts, politics, business and entertainment. Put aside the fact that the black experts and leaders in the aforementioned fields are disproportionately HBCU graduates; there is still the biting hypocrisy of expecting black students and their families to make the choice for diversity when the same expectation is not present for white students.

There can be no honest discussion on racial diversity in higher education without acknowledging the historical burden of diversity for African-American students, past and present. The reality of rampant underfunding, media smearing and political sabotage of HBCUs is a very tangible part of HBCU culture to this day, and continues to have a significant impact on students of all races in their assessment of an HBCU as a higher education option.

This is particularly painful for the black student, who recognizes the benefit of attending a cost-effective, nurturing institution that provides the academic attention and the socially fulfilling experiences for minorities not commonly found at larger, "more diverse" campuses.

Being one of a handful of minorities in a class of hundreds and learning from professors who may not understand the cultural perspectives influencing an academic experience may not always complement the allure of better facilities or the prospect of career advancement after graduation. Black students, at varying levels, understand this.

And yet, across social and economic structures around the country, black students are consistently exposed to messaging beckoning them to choose the right side of racial harmony.

Black students are continually asked to be the sole armor-bearers of Dr. King's dream, to walk boldly and proudly into diversity, embracing its benefits and setbacks with smiling dignity. All white students, faculty and leaders are asked to do is to not expose them to racism.

At last check, the speeches and writings of Dr. King did not preclude white students from attending HBCUs. They did not call for a prohibition on white lawmakers providing equal funding to these institutions, and they did not call for predominantly white media to ignore the innumerable successes of these institutions and their graduates.

Members of the majority have always been able to handle diversity with white gloves, to provide the opportunity and to see that access to the opportunity is equitable for minorities. Yet, according to Vedder and others sharing his philosophy, it is the God-given duty of the black student to bear the loneliness, ground-level discrimination or disadvantage that can be experienced as a racial minority at a predominantly white institution.

We all should be grateful that Riley, Vedder and others are so willing to bring up the discussion on the merit and value of HBCUs. Their ignorance gives the larger American community, with its 24-hour news cycle and vast access to punditry and opinion, a chance to know HBCUs in ways unimaginable just 25 years ago. Knowledgeable researchers and experts now have greater opportunities to discuss the mission-mandated admissions policies that, while creating a culture of high attrition and poor academic performance, continue to afford opportunities to students neglected by the country's public secondary education system.

Casual observers of higher education can now discover that despite being chronically underfunded at the state and federal levels, the professional and financial roots of the African-American middle class are inextricably linked to the HBCUs producing the lion's share of the country's black graduates.

And above all else, people of all races can discover that HBCUs offer exemplary academic cultures that continue to uphold their commitments to diversity and inclusion -- even while predominantly white institutions scramble to put a multi-racial facelift on some campuses that statistically still resemble ethnic compositions found in the early days, months and years of desegregation.

Any respectable call for diversity demands expansion of opportunities, retroactive support of funding needs and promotion of cultural advantages present at HBCUs. As predominantly white colleges have grown from humble beginnings as liberal arts colleges and technical education hubs serving the interests of their surrounding cities and states, HBCUs demand the same opportunity and cherish the chance to share it with students of all races.

The question is not if HBCUs should exist or how valuable they are, but how long before the exposure of their value will break the weakening push of racism and ignorance working against them.