Deion Sanders decision to leave Jackson State University (JSU) to accept the head coaching job at the University of Colorado has facilitated rich conversations, particularly amongst Black people.
Much of the discourse centers on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities); specifically whether or not Sanders did what he could to uplift JSU and HBCUs in general or if he bailed on that mission, a mission he shared was one from God. But if you really listen, you’ll hear another conversation taking place within Black governance spaces.
That is, an attempt to identify whose responsibility it is of both sustaining and elevating Black institutions like HBCUs. Sanders choice of a lackluster power five PWI (predominately white institution) over an HBCU with a historic football program is the entry point to this conversation.
There are those who believe that the responsibility belongs to policymakers, who’ve presided over the decline in government funding of HBCUs. Others hold Black people—particularly HBCU alumni, Black entertainers and the Black wealthy—responsible for failing to use their resources (financial and otherwise) to sustain and elevate HBCUs.
The truth is that two things can be true at the same time.
HBCUs are one of the more important institutions in the United States. These schools enroll more first-generation and academically underprepared students than other four-year schools; with more than 60% of its students being Pell Grant eligible. They’ve also graduated 40% of all Black engineers and members of Congress, 50% of all Black lawyers, and 80% of all Black judges.
Our current Vice-President is an HBCU grad.
That HBCUs are grossly underfunded compared to PWIs is a disgrace. When compared to their white counterparts, Black land-grant universities were underfunded by at least $12.8 billion over the last 30 years according to Forbes. That funding comes from the states.
Of the 107 HBCUs, 69 (or 64%) are located in states with where Republicans are in control of both the state house and governor’s mansion—which is directly responsible for the (lack of) funding of HBCUs. Meaning that Black tax dollars are not being allocated to HBCUs as they should be. It’s a misappropriation of Black tax dollars and these policymakers should not be left off the hook.
Our vote can help to keep government action in check, but that’s become much harder with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act with the Shelby decision. Which is why it is important for Black people to invest in our institutions, especially HBCUs.
Certainly, the wealth gap as a result of chattel enslavement and systemic racism is a challenge. However, the momentum of memory provides us with examples of how we (Black people) have funded education institutions in the past. One example is the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH).
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, although courted by white institutions of his day, created ASALH to support Black educators teaching Black children. By working within a Black institution (of his creation), he could research African history and provide his findings to Black teachers nationwide without white surveillance; determining what he could or could not research while safeguarding access to it.
According to Harvard professor Dr. Jarvis Givens, it was “everyday” Black people who donated what they could to keep ASALH alive; to keep Dr. Woodson’s work going and his work (with the $5 and $10 donations of Black people) traveled throughout Black schools to Black children who would later lead the Civil Rights Movement.
It is important that we invest our time, talent and treasure to support HBCUs where we can. Those who have status and stature within the culture must use it. Those with financial resources must donate them. Also, alumni have a responsibility to give back. No matter if we have a lot or a little to give… we must give because our gifts are an investment in us. A great tool to do so is the I Heart My HBCU app.
This is all a great conversation to have. But I hope that rather than pointing finger, we turn dialogue into duty; advocating on behalf of HBCUs, holding stakeholders accountable while celebrating those giving their time, talents and treasures to Black institutions.