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Misunderstanding History in the Age of Obama



On Feb. 26, President Barack Obama signed an executive order recognizing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In honor of the event, the president said of HBCUs, “They are the campuses where a people were educated, where a middle class was built, where a dream took hold.”


As someone interested in HBCUs and history, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at the reporting of this event and the comments made online about it. My quick review uncovered quite a few misunderstandings. Interestingly, because a Black president signed the executive order, quite a few readers of newspapers throughout the country assumed that this was the first time the order was put forth.  Some readers called President Obama a racist for “introducing” such an order. Others referred to him as a “separatist or segregationist.” Of course, these readers have no understanding of the history of HBCUs or the executive order that Obama signed.


In reality, President Carter (a Democrat) initiated the executive order and President Reagan (a Republican) expanded it. Every president, regardless of political party, has renewed the order since its creation. President Obama is the first Black president to sign the order, and, thus, to the uninformed citizen it could appear that he is giving preferential treatment to “Black” institutions. 


In my mind, this assumption is tinged with racism because Obama’s critics think that because he is Black he will automatically “favor” Black colleges and universities. These same critics disregard the history of HBCUs. A quick read of history would show that HBCUs exist because African-Americans were systematically excluded from “White” higher education for decades. Critics would also learn that without HBCUs there wouldn’t be an African- American middle class or those that stand on the shoulders of that middle class. Obama—and other presidents—have not acknowledged HBCUs merely because they are Black institutions but because these colleges and universities have rectified racial justice.


Even with this knowledge, however, some critics won’t understand the special importance of HBCUs. They’ll claim that these institutions aren’t needed or don’t deserve special recognition or support in a post-Brown v. Board/post-legalized segregation world. These critics may even go as far as to say that we don’t need HBCUs in a United States that elected a Black president. What they don’t understand is that, without HBCUs, we would have far fewer African-Americans (and increasingly Latinos, Asians, and Whites) in college and far fewer Blacks attending graduate school, especially in the sciences, math, engineering, and medicine. In order to be globally competitive we need HBCUs to help our nation educate its citizens.


HBCUs have endured decades of unequal treatment at various levels of government. Elevating their importance at a national level is both a necessity and a moral good given our nation’s history.


An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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