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Can HBCUs Survive Without 'The Struggle?'

06/06/2013 03:32 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2013

Cultural exchange is evident in all parts of American lifestyle and pop culture, with more surface disinterest for what is 'black' and what is 'white' then ever before. Division is more readily blamed on class and sex than race. A 24/7 news cycle provides more validation for bias than information, and gives all people the impression that all other people think as they do all of the time. 'The Struggle,' that powerfully symbolic term that describes the wickedly beautiful strength of African-Americans fighting to live freely and happily against the strife of slavery and its effects, appears to be coming to an end.

Will HBCUs fade away along with it?

Historically black colleges and universities were created out of 'The Struggle,' and seemingly as the fight for equity evolved from bondage to segregation and from segregation to equality, the HBCU evolved its narrative of scholarship and service, hoping to match note for note the sound for soon-coming freedom.

That sound, for many African-Americans and supporters of black colleges, rings out today more clearly than at any other point in our history. The president recently suggested that the stinging realities of racism cannot and should not overtake the limitless possibilities of strong morals and work ethic. Black colleges are realizing that there is another side to the prospect of diversity, a two-way blueprint for people of all ethnicities to come into black colleges and communities in the same tradition of African-American integration into predominantly white places and spaces.

Yet, the public perception of the HBCUs has gone from 'a mind is a terrible thing to waste,' to 'are HBCUs still relevant?'

Racial discrimination in the realms of poverty, crime, entertainment, public health, political clout and social justice remain very real but subtle in appearance. HBCUs continue to train graduates and employ faculty who dedicate their lives to eliminating flaws in the great social experiment of desegregation, but their successes have been lost in the pop culture machine of what higher education should look like. That machine suggests American higher education to be diverse faculty members churning out lessons in smart classrooms, with all of their students, merit scholarship recipients of course, eager to become America's generation of scientists and engineers.

But outside of that machine, HBCUs scrap for every dollar and every minority student willing to walk through their doors. They are strapped for new equipment, scholarship dollars and full-time faculty to adequately prepare students for accelerated achievement in their burgeoning careers. Their mission is struggle-centered; to accept the best and brightest and those on the academic fringes alike, not because it is the best thing for profile or profitability, but because no other school will or knows how to do so.

This same culture that makes HBCUs essential to the effort for black equity, makes their operational existence struggle-based. HBCUs struggle with flaws in service and structural culture, which diminishes the brightest hopes for the HBCU experience. They struggle with recruitment because stereotypes are fulfilled and propagated, in part, by students who don't realize the benefit of open enrollment and remediation within the melding of self-awareness and scholarship. They struggle because alumni are long on talk and short on dollars when it comes to financing our own institutions.

The HBCU is accepted for some of its traditions, and there is a unique appreciation for the contributions of HBCU graduates and scholars in our national history. But like the people they serve, HBCUs are still struggling to claim a measure of belonging in American culture.

And even if the struggle is harder to see today than in generations past, HBCUs remain necessary to bring about its end. But do we respect the struggle enough to see that HBCUs are the key components in the cultural war now fought on covert terms?

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