Monday, May 12, 2008

Choosing Sides

Typically, when I'm not out doing some actual journalism at work, I spend a good portion of my time scanning the internet and reading. Before this year, I would usually jump between mainstream news sites, but then I let go of my personal bias and began to really embrace blogs. Not only were these sites killing the mainstream media when it came to black news I could use, but they also had some really smart people giving their thoughts on a wide range of topics.

Anyway, I was roaming the internet recently, and I came across a blog post that resonated with me. The post was at a blog called Midwest Reality, and it discussed the great college divide among black people.

Some of you might not have heard the issue referred to in that manner, but I'm pretty sure that most of you have discussed the topic at one time or another. At any gathering of black people, either in person or on the web, the issue of whether it's better to attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a mainstream university is pretty much guaranteed to come up at some point.

For those astute folks up on their HBCU lingo, a quick glance at the first item on my sidebar should be a good clue about my own biases when it comes to this issue. I'm a proud graduate of the greatest HBCU in the world, Howard University, and I count my time there as one of my greatest life experiences.

But, my own bias aside, I've always been curious as to why black folks love to debate whether it's a better career move to attend a black college or a white one. We're like moths drawn to an inferno, and this flame is guaranteed to cause hurt feelings and genuine anger among quite a few folks.

It seems like any discussion of the merits of both types of universities eventually devolves into an argument about who is blacker and who is more realistic. Basically, folks on the HBCU side tend to question the blackness of their white school counterparts, while those who attended mainstream universtities wonder if the black school kids understand what it takes to succeed in the real world. Sometimes those points are made through heated shouting, other times the method of delivery is snide remarks, but every time I've had this discussion those two points are made.

The predictablity would be amusing if it didn't make me so sad.

You know, one of the ominprescent memes in the black community is the mythical push for black "unity." There is a dedicated core within the black community that believes that if we just found our unity, we could change the world. Of course, there is another core group of black folks who love to respond to calls for unity with "white folks don't need no unity to succeed."

Both mindsets are flawed, just like the mindset that a person's black bonafides are defined by what college they attend, or that somebody who didn't opt to be a minority in college couldn't be prepared for the "real world."

I chose an HBCU because I'd done the only black person thing in a few classes in middle school and I realized that wasn't conducive to me being the best student I could be. My choice to attend Howard was born of my desire to feel at ease, not tied to some idea that it would reinforce my blackness. In fact, there are quite a few folks I know who attended mainstream universities who are much more knowledgable and black-oriented than myself, so it's not like HBCUs had some magic black Kool-Aid that they were hoarding.

On the flip side, the last time I checked I grew up black in America, so the idea that attending a college without white folks would cripple me in corporate America is just silly. Shoot, from what I've seen and heard, the vast majority of black people who go to mainstream universities form their own little enclaves of blackness and rarely venture out of these bubbles to engage with the rest of the campus. So, it's like they create their own HBCUs only with about ten times more stress.

Truthfully, I think black folks have this debate so often because it is part of the larger debate we love to engage in about what it really means to be black. That larger debate is often sparked by smaller issues, like what music someone prefers, what clothes they wear or how they speak, but ultimately black folks are really testing each other to see who is really black, and who is a "credit to the race."

It's a stupid exercise that is a symptom of our feelings of unease in this country. The idea that black folks walk in lockstep and always share the same interests is a stereotype promulgated by mainstream America, but, unfortunately black folks have adopted it.

We foolishly cling to that stereotype because for some of us it provides that sense of community and closeness that we find lacking in our daily lives. If we all pretty much think and act similiarly, doesn't that mean we're a family? In addition, if each of us can set ourselves up as the final arbiter on the merits of someone's blackness, we can feel powerful instead of powerless.

Given this country's history, black folks compulsion to rank and vet each other based on "blackness" is not surprising, but it is counterproductive. We have to learn to be able to disagree, to have different interests without viewing that as a betrayal of some sort of unwritten code. Our college choice says something about us, but so does every choice we make in life.

Outside of Larry Elder and Ward Connerly, there is no right or wrong way to be black.


Imhotep said...

Big Man, I did not attend a HBCU. I don't think you necessarily have to choose sides, but I don't think anyone should hold historically white universities in any higher esteen than HBCUs.

It kinda trips me out now when Black folks talk with reverence about these historically racist, white universities. The legacy of these universities is that they perpetuated the myth of racial superiority, created the leaders that fortified institutional racism. And they spawned the academia class that went around the country propagating the white supremacy lie. So how the f**k is that a better place than a HBCU?

I must confess, being a Cali guy I did not have any exposure to HBCUs. And the local university boasted alumni such as Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Ron Karenga. So in my youthful ignorance I held a greater respect for the local universities than for the HBCU.

As I grew older, I asked myself why was the Ivy leagues silent during slavery? Why were the christian universities silent during the jim crow era? Did they march, did they protest? Even now, these historically racist/white university will use affirmative action to get a young Black athlete to generate money for the university, while cutting back on affirmative action admissions for the non athlete Black.

I have developed a preference for the HBCU, but wherever you get your education, reach back and help someone.

Hagar's Daughter said...

As a HBCU grad - Xavier Univerisity - I never had or heard arguments along the lines of defining one's blackness by the college choice. What I've heard and been insulted by is that somehow white universities provided a better education.

Big Man I'm glad I found your blog.

Truthiz said...

Big Man wrote:

“Given this country's history, black folks compulsion to rank and vet each other based on "blackness" is not surprising, but it is counterproductive. We have to learn to be able to disagree, to have different interests without viewing that as a betrayal of some sort of unwritten code. Our college choice says something about us, but so does every choice we make in life.

Outside of Larry Elder and Ward Connerly, there is no right or wrong way to be black.”

And let the church say AMEN!!!

As a Penn State University grad, I've never gotten any flack about my college choice or having it define my "Blackness" _and the truthiz, I wouldn't have paid any attention to such nonsense anyway.

Unknown said...

By the time I got out of high school I'd had my blackness 'questioned' - sometimes to the point of tears- on a daily basis, so an HBCU wasn't something I was excited about. I went to the best theatre program that would have me and I haven't regretted it. Two of my sisters went to HBCU's (the oldest to Howard like you) and the other two didn't - two of are made fun of in the family for being the 'oreo kids' and two aren't. You can guess which.
I don't mean to ramble, but you've touched a nerve.

Big Man said...


Thanks for letting your feelings be known. I don't think every convo about HBCUs versus white universities explicitly becomes a challenge to someone's blackness, but I've noticed the undercurrent in almost every encounter. It might be an "oreo" joke like WNG mentioned, or it might be something even more subtle.

Conversley, I've found a lot of folks who attended white universities to really feel like they got the best education possible, and that attending a HBCU would have been a step down. Sometimes this is a defensive mechanism, but other times it's much more than that.

Like I said in the post, from what I've gathered, one of black folks' favorite activities is ranking each other's blackness. I haven't been a victim of it too much, but even my own brother has said he's had it happen to him and we've attended the same schools almost our entire lives. So, it's a real problem that only causes pain in our communities.

I'm not claiming to be immune to doing this, but I've started to question my motivations for my actions a lot more as I've gotten older, and as I've started writing this blog.

Unknown said...

I'm also the only woman in my family who didn't pledge AKA, but we won't even GO there.
I'm from an HBCU family - Howard, Shaw, Morehouse, SCSU, Allen - these were the schools my sisters, uncles and aunts attended, so I was the minority in this instance and my perspective may be different.
Why are we all so sensitive about and hard on each other for the choices we make?

Anonymous said...

great topic. I don't think it matters where you get your education, as long as you get one...

Big Man said...


That's another topic for another day.


I don't know why we are so hard on each other. It's really crazy.

Mac Daddy Tribute Blog said...

Good post. Good discussion. I grew up in Atlanta, around a host of good black colleges. I couldn't afford to go to Morehouse, but I hung out with students there. It was very different from the white colleges I attended later. A very positive, cultural experience.

Anonymous said...

Good deal. I've definitely had the experience of defending HBCUs--namely, Howard University--against attacks by black folk who have bought into the idea that white is right; at least from an educational perspective. We must learn to disagree with out the same becoming grounds for excommnuication from whatever sect of the black community is meeting at that time.

Gye Greene said...

This is really interesting stuff to hear: I was aware that a debate along these lines existed, but wasn't aware of the depth of passion involved.

Big Man, you mentioned that the debate is often in terms of "a better career move". Is this the primary dimension/merit that's addressed in the debates? To what degree are ethics, personal politics, and/or academic achievement (which you also alluded to) also included?

Your mention about having a hard time succeeding in "being the only black kid" classes. In Australia, at least, they've found that girls do better academically (and behaviorally?) at all-girls schools than both-sex schools -- boys tend to receive more attention and help in class, while girls get overlooked. But **boys** do better at both-sex schools (than at all-boys schools). Likewise (in the U.S.) for women going to mixed-sex vs. women's colleges.

The implication might be that, regardless of how good the university **in general** is, racial bias at a mixed-race school might counteract whatever "bonus" you get for it being an Ivy League (or whatever).

For what it's worth: I've taught at three universities so far, and at least as far as instructional quality (which is distinct from forming social networks, and name cache of the school), I'm not convinced there's a **huge** difference across universities. The difference is more department-by-department, program-by-program. That is, a "famous" school can have a mediocre Sociology program, and a lesser-ranked school can have a pretty good Soc. program. There's a lot more influence in how much the student actually studies: A hard-working, bright kid will excel in any program; a lazy kid won't get much out of the process, even at Harvard or Yale (which one did G.W. Shrub go to?).

IMO; open to revision.


Mari-Djata said...

As a HBCU student, Spelman, and a history buff, I have to say that although I had the choice of ivy league schools, I also knew the history associated with these big named schools when it came to race-relations and I hate the idea of my money being used to fund my own demise. I also wanted an afro-centric education -I wanted to know history from the point of view of the lioness, not the hunter. I wanted to know that, because of how my school was created and who it caters to, that I would be have the focus of my professors and the respect of my peers -not to be looked at as an affirmative action recipient. I believe that HBCUs offer this and more to young black students, and HWCUs are severely lacking when it comes to diversity-training.

ZACK said...

HBCUs ain't nothin but a fashion show and a party atmosphere. Rarely does one hear of anything of academic importance coming out of any of them.

I went to a white University and I could care less about blackness. In fact, the black students at my school tried to be their own HBCU. It defeated the whole purpose of meeting people from other cultures.

I don't down anybody who attended an HBCU, but I turned out better because I didn't attend one. I think that God wants us to be friends with whomever we choose, not just with our own race.

I don't need black folks ranking my blackness. The mirror does that for me.

(The Field Negro has you linked as his blog of the moment)

Anonymous said...

Students who attend HBCU's graduate with a high degree of self esteem.
They don't feel less than but equal

Gye Greene said...

Big Man,

I'd like to think that journalists and (good) academics are on the same team: trying to find answers to questions, and using facts to support our opinions.

Sorry if this seems like I'm hijacking your "comments" section -- but I tracked down the findings on the advantages/disadvantages of attending a HBCU vs. a TWI.

My results cover results back to 1980. I've summarized them below; for anyone who wants the actual citations for the journal articles, I'll list them at -- in a day or two...

Basic findings, though: lots of advantages, no disadvantages, to attending a HBCU. On average...





Based on 1995 university students: The African-Americans at TWIs have higher SAT and high school g.p.a.s than African-Americans at HBCUs. But the data can't answer whether the students attending TWIs are "better students" -- or just that students who didn't like high school tend to self-select into HBCUs "for a different type of educational environment". (I'd wager that Caucasian students who didn't like high school disproportionately choose funky, quasi-hippie liberal arts colleges rather than stodgy, traditional 4-year universities.)


"Independent of gender, family income, or educational aspiration, the most powerful predictor of [HBCU] attendance is geography, followed by the student's religion, the school's social reputation, & relatives' desires. The top three reasons why African Americans choose predominantly white institutions are because they are recruited by an athletic department, they wish to live near home, & they value the college's academic reputation. [Thus,] personal affiliations (friends, parents, role models) are important influences for black college attendance, whereas school personnel are more influential for white institution attendance."


Based on 1972-1982 data: African-American students attending a HBCU had stronger academic [college] achievement and higher levels of involvement in [college] student activities than comparable students attending TWI. This is net of H.S. g.p.a, gender, social class, whether they’d felt they’d made the right choice in attending their university, and their future
educational aspirations (e.g. going on to graduate school). On average.

Based on 1980 university students: There was indeed a HBCU benefit in the odds of actually graduating. Net of a zillion other variables that were statistically compensated for. And on average.

Based on 1995 university students: No real difference between HBCU and TWI in terms of dropping out of college, or completing within six years -- net of a zillion background factors (e.g. parental education, kid’s H.S. g.p.a., family income, university’s tuition fees, amount of financial aid available at that university). On average.

Based on 1988 data: The predictors of academic success for AfrAms are similar for HBCUs and TWIs, although their relative influence differed at HBCUs vs. TWIs.

(I also discovered: "Prior research has shown that blacks are more likely than whites to attend college after high school graduation, net of socioeconomic background & academic performance." In other words -- and ON AVERAGE -- for an African-American and Caucasian-American of the same social class, SAT scores, and g.p.a., the African-American is
more likely to go on to college.)


Based on the high school class of 1972, and their 1986 wages: depending on how you slice and dice it, either an 8% or a 38% bonus in attending a HBCU - net of a zillion other factors. (The authors also note that these differences may not reflect long-term wage differences (i.e. further into their career paths). But there’s a definite advantage, rather than a DIS-advantage. On average.

Based on 1972-1982 data: African-American students attending a HBCU had higher occupational aspirations than comparable students attending TWI. This is net of H.S. g.p.a, gender, social class, whether they’d felt they’d made the right choice in attending their university, and their future educational aspirations (e.g. going on to graduate school). On average.


"The approximately 103 historically black colleges & universities (HBCUs) across the US share a historical responsibility as the "primary providers of postsecondary education for African Americans in a social environment of racial discrimination." Six primary goals of HBCUs as provided for by this special "social contract" are identified: (1) maintenance of the black historical & cultural tradition; (2) provision of key leadership for the black community; (3) service of an economic function for the black community; (4) provision of black role models; (5) creation of graduates with unique competencies to address minority-majority group relations; & (6) production of black agents for specialized research, institutional training, & information dissemination on dealing with life in minority communities. Ways that this social contract is realized through social capital &/or the distribution & reproduction of social networks & resources provided by HBCUs are described. It is concluded that HBCUs function as "social equalizers" in providing educational opportunities to those marginalized by a society unequally divided along racial lines." (Source: M. Christopher Brown, II. 2001. "The Historically Black College as Social Contract, Social Capital, and Social Equalizer." Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 76, no. 1, pp. 31-49.)

CAUTION: Social science findings are almost always "old news"; thus, findings on 1980s data may not still apply to entering freshmen of 2008. But it IS suggestive... :)

Big Man said...


Thank you so much for dropping all those stats. I wanted to let you know that at least one person read through them.

You said this: HBCUs ain't nothin but a fashion show and a party atmosphere. Rarely does one hear of anything of academic importance coming out of any of them.

This is so completely ridiculous I would wager that you have not bothered to check out what positions the graduates of HBCUs now hold in society. You're entitled to your opinion, but your initial statement completely contradicts your later statement that you're not trying to down anybody.

ZACK said...

They hold token positions at racist white companies. I know many HBCU graduates and the only ones who really do well- work for themselves.

But honestly, I'm not trying to down anybody. It's just an opinion. I apologize for upsetting you.

Big Man said...


I'm not upset, you're welcome to express a dissenting opinion here any time.

I just wanted to point out to you that all of my friends who are Howard graduates have very nice jobs as accountant, lawyers, doctors and other professions.

More importantly, I know people from Howard who hold positions of influence in major institutions. I don't think it's in any way accurate to label their jobs as "token" positions, or to state that the only ones who do well work for themselves. Besides, I'd be interested to hear who you prove that black folks who go to white schools don't suffer the same fate.

Raving Black Lunatic