The recent events in Baltimore highlight the economic, political and social disparities that continue to persist in communities throughout the United States. Although Ferguson and Baltimore are separated by hundreds of miles, both locales are burdened by systemic issues that plague underserved neighborhoods.
Political pundits point to high unemployment, crime, drugs and familial relationships as the primary cause for the gap between Blacks and Whites. However, the issues in Ferguson and Baltimore are a microcosm of problems the nation has encountered for decades. As a resident of Baltimore, witnessing the clash between protestors and police is like looking at a distorted reflection. I recognize the players involved in the conflict but struggle to reconcile the images on television of a city with a rich history. While the media, politicians and experts argue over why the events in Baltimore occurred, students and faculty members at Coppin State University are focused on easing tensions and helping the community.
Coppin State is at the epicenter of the strife between police and residents. The problems in Baltimore provide the university with the opportunity to continue outreach efforts within the local community. During the civil rights movement students from Coppin State and Morgan State University led sit-ins, which brought attention to discriminatory practices. Both institutions are located in predominantly African-American enclaves. Similar to the efforts of students in the 1960s, each institution will play a vital role supporting members of the community as they lobby to change the economic conditions in the city.
Collectively Coppin and Morgan are well-equipped to work with residents to fight for reform. Coppin State has a community health center and Black male initiative, while Morgan offers an array of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives and outreach programs. The programs are consistent with the mission of HBCUs to educate, uplift and mobilize the African-American community to fight against discriminatory practices. The problems throughout the city offer administrators at each institution an opportunity to incorporate social justice principles. Emphasizing the importance of challenging unjust policies would empower the university community to develop programs that could create a paradigm shift.
HBCU graduates would feel compelled to dismantle systems that deny citizens opportunities because of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender expression. The emphasis on social justice could provide other HBCUs with a template that leads to systemic changes throughout the nation. Throughout their history, HBCUs have developed social activists including Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. A new generation of activists from Coppin, Morgan and other HBCUs are actively fighting to challenge societal norms.
The problems facing Baltimore and other municipalities throughout the country will not be easily solved. Coppin and Morgan have an opportunity to transform Baltimore from a city known for television series like The Wire to a place where African-Americans have opportunities to succeed. Countering years of substandard housing, healthcare and education will require a coordinated effort from stakeholders. Each institution has a chance to change the discourse and focus on solutions that work.
Embracing the past could help HBCUs develop solutions that impact the lives of future generations. Supporting underserved communities is linked to the nation’s long-term success. Coppin and Morgan State should work with members of the community to leverage resources from the local, state and federal government. Identifying specific needs could help members of the community address systemic issues. HBCUs are a cornerstone within the African-American community. The education and economic issues facing Baltimore will not be solved overnight. However, it is vital that HBCU students, staff and faculty members serve as examples in the fight for equality.
Dr. Larry J. Walker (@LarryJWalker2) is currently a Research Fellow in the School of Graduate Studies at Morgan State University.