12/16/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

New Shades of Black in Higher Education

Recently Toni Morrison told Stephen Colbert that there is only one race, the Human Race, reminding me that even as our country's justice, health, and educational systems are failing certain folks, there are sanctuaries from racism: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Although I'm not genetically described as an African American, I earned my doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Howard University. The HBCUs are a national resource. As such, we need to nurture them because until we have a country where race doesn't exist, we at least have these holding grounds. According to my old psychology professor from Howard, Dr. Linda Berg-Cross, "Race is a social construction and it dominates the narratives in our society, but other narratives are possible. At a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), those other narratives flourish."

We can't all have a one-on-one with Toni Morrison, but we can call on people like Dr. Berg-Cross for wisdom during times when racial tensions are at a peak. Dr. Berg-Cross completed her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Columbia University's Teacher's College, focusing on four core areas of study: health, education, leadership, and psychology. With her degree from the oldest and largest graduate program in education in the U.S., Dr. Berg-Cross, a Caucasian-Jewish woman with a New Yorker's accent, might have had a choice of many faculty positions. Thankfully, she chose Howard University, where she's remained for over thirty years, having published five books. During my time at Howard, she was the chair of the clinical psychology track. According to Dr. Berg-Cross, Howard University "embodies the core values I cherish: a belief in social justice, perseverance, and overcoming the odds through self-efficacy and social support."

Regarding the disappointing outcomes in the grand jury decisions on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, she said, "African-American parents are faced with a most difficult dilemma. Their children are living in an era of unprecedented opportunity and integration and yet, they continue to be disproportionately affected by police violence and many less visible signs of discrimination. How do you teach respect for societal laws and the need to be wary of being unfairly targeted? Parents may find it useful to have PEACE Conversations about societal wrongs when the news is reporting such instances." She created these five points for parents to address during PEACE discussions:

Protesting injustice is one of the highest contributions we can make to our society.
End black-white thinking and help children see all the shades of gray that exist in any situation.
Attitudes towards racism, ageism, sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, homophobia, ableism, and other types of social injustice need to be confronted in one's self and worked through.
Cross Racial Friendships should be developed and valued.
Educate your children on the power of laws and why society depends on people obeying the law.

Despite the increasing racial tensions reported in the news, Dr. Berg-Cross pointed to a trend leading to more diversity at HBCUs. Information on this and on scholarships for minority students funded by the National Science Foundation can be found here. "Twenty years ago, 66 percent of students of color went to HBCUs and 33 percent went to PWIs. Now the proportions are reversed."

As for being a Caucasian faculty member at Howard, Dr. Berg-Cross said it is not unlike being a Jewish faculty member at Georgetown University. She said, "HBCUs are a safe holding ground for not only people of color, but for all disadvantaged individuals or people with differentness." I discovered this for myself as a Caucasian woman with a physical "disability" studying psychology. I wanted to borrow from the lessons learned by other minority cultures. At Howard I was given a perspective on the common experiences of members in any minority group. That perspective would not necessarily have been granted at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). Dr. Berg-Cross explained it this way: "The African-American narrative is woven within all HBCU classes alongside the greater American narrative."

As a practicing psychologist and a former American Psychological Association (APA) health policy fellow to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I've wished the psychology community would engage more in the topic of physical "disability." On the issue of racism, though, I'm more optimistic. Recently the APA monthly magazine The Monitor made a significant statement on the issue of discrimination against African-American males. Admittedly, I cringed at its unfortunate tagline to its members: Psychologists Help Black Boys Build Resilience. As I see it, psychologists could learn a lot about resilience from African-American men. Nonetheless, findings mentioned in the article were widely quoted on the news talk shows following the Garner and Brown grand jury decisions. The article quoted findings from social psychologists who reported "that white female undergraduates judged all children as equally innocent up to age 9 but saw black children as significantly less so starting at age 10." Another study revealed that "police officers who viewed black boys in more dehumanized ways than they did white boys were more likely than other officers to use force against them in custody." I hope The Monitor will add a research finding from someone at an HBCU the next time they cover racial disparities. In making that connection, they might find what I found at Howard University, which could not be articulated better than in these words from Dr. Linda Berg-Cross, "At HBCUs the stress is often on the universal nature governing human beings and how situational factors shape our differences." In these trying times, we don't all have access to conversations with Toni Morrison, but we can all have access to someone at a Historically Black College or University.