Exposing the Myth: HBCUs and the Real World

Thousands of students are preparing to attend historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in August. But some of those students are on the receiving end of blows of ire from friends and family for choosing an HBCU.

The loudest critique — HBCUs are not representative of the real world. 

As someone who attended an HBCU (Florida A&M University) for my undergraduate studies, I have heard this claim so many times it stopped upsetting me.  But when I listened to one of my family members make this assertion to our most recent high school graduate who will attend an HBCU in the fall, my passion for setting the record straight resurfaced.

There are concerns a parent can raise in sending their child to an HBCU, just as that parent can develop concerns about any college or university in this nation. But the idea that HBCUs do not represent the real world should not cause alarm.  It is invalid, based on a few faulty (but seemingly logical) premises.

The concept starts with the obvious observation that African-Americans live in a majority White country.  Since HBCUs are majority Black, they do not correspond to this real, majority White world, the argument climaxes.  When students attend HBCUs, when they enter these majority Black spaces, they instead are enrolled in fictitious, racial dream worlds that do not match reality.  Therefore, African-American students are better served learning how to operate in this majority White nation by attending a majority White college or university. 

In reality, the majority of African-Americans (even in the Black middle-class) in the United States work in majority Black sites of employment, live in majority Black communities, socialize in majority Black groups and send their children to majority Black schools (The same demographic landscape holds for Whites and Latinos). The majority of African-Americans are enrolled in Black worlds, demonstrating that aspiring for success does not need a concomitant aspiration to exist in majority White worlds. 

HBCUs are more representative of the real world, from the generalized perspective of what most African-Americans experience, than traditionally White institutions (TWIs). So when people contend HBCUs do not represent reality, they are speaking, usually unknowingly, from the generalized perspective of the environment most White Americans interact in where they is a minority of African-Americans.  Ironically, then, when someone criticizes an aspiring HBCU student for avoiding the “real world,” it demonstrates their own lack of knowledge for the real world they are trying to prepare the student to excel in.

There is no such thing as “the real world.” There are only real worlds, drawn from the conception of each individual on earth and conceived by groups of people in a society.

Perspective is crucial in understanding my point.  To give a historical example, most slave-owners had few slaves, but most slaves lived on large plantations.  For most slave-owners, their “real” plantation had few slaves.  For most slaves, their “real” plantation had many slaves.

To many Americans, their conceptualized real world is majority White.  But only a minority of Blacks work, live, and send their children into majority White spaces. People should recognize and see this reality. 

In seeing this reality, Americans will then grasp that, from a practical standpoint, those aspiring college students are well served learning at an HBCU how to operate in the real world for most African-Americans — a majority Black setting.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.