Do Historically Black Colleges Provide the Safe Spaces Students Are After?

Predominantly white institutions have made themselves attractive to minority students but haven’t succeeded in making themselves inclusive.

James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

When the University of Mississippi was integrated in 1962, James Meredith, the first black student to enroll, had to be escorted by federal forces through the chaos and riots that ensued because of his attendance. Alabama Governor George Wallace vowed to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to block a black student from enrolling at the University of Alabama, a struggle that also called for federal intervention. Countless other black students who tried to take advantage of integration in the ‘60s were highly aware that these predominantly white schools were physically unsafe spaces for them. Half a century later students of color may not have the same type of fear of violence, but they are still protesting for the right to feel included at their universities.

Most mainstream universities promote themselves as inclusive—college and university websites often feature buzzwords such as “inclusive,” “diversity,” and “community.” Yale says that it “celebrates people with a variety of backgrounds and beliefs.” The University of Missouri touts its diversity not as an end to itself, but a means for students to experience the increasing multicultural world. Ithaca dedicates itself to fostering respect and compassion. In The New Yorker, Mehgan O’Rourke alludes to this in describing her time at Yale. “Yale sells itself to prospective students partly on the merits of this distinctive ‘residential college’ system. They are—as the university’s Web site stresses—students’ ‘homes away from home.’” Each of these universities, though, have experienced racial tension in the last few weeks, and if the protests that have ensued have revealed anything, it is that students of color aren’t experiencing college life in the same way as their peers. And against this backdrop historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) may seem newly relevant.

In the last few days tensions have grown between universities and minority students: Mizzou has ousted its president and chancellor; two people were arrested for sending anonymous threats to black students at Mizzou on YikYak; and students of color on dozens of campuses across the country have declared their solidarity. These kinds of protests are not new. Many mainstream colleges, schools that enroll a majority of white students, have benefitted from the diversity minority students provide—often creating a synthetic microcosm of the real world—but they appear less moved to ensure they serve as spaces that are inclusive for the students they work so hard to attract.

It would appear, on the surface at least, that HBCUs don’t have that problem: Most of their students and faculty are black, and alumni boast about the comfort of being surrounded by other minorities, to whom they theoretically don’t have to justify their cultures to the same extent. Although the rigor and relevance of HBCUs have been debated at length, the prospective resurgence of black institutions as potentially one of few surviving safe places for black students is important now more than ever.

The debates over the benefits of HBCUs versus whiter institutions have often been set in a binary. This dichotomy doesn’t refer to the argument for all black students to attend historically black colleges, or for the superiority of one type of institution over the other; what these two types of colleges do is compete for the brightest minds of minority scholars. But HBCUs seem to provide support systems that are deeply entrenched throughout all aspects of the university—systems that many predominantly white institutions have dragged their feet in implementing. HBCUs don’t just offer cultural centers tailored for minority students, they offer communities—from the students to the faculty to the way of life—that are culturally relevant and relatable in all kinds of ways.

Tracy Clayton, one of the hosts of the Another Round podcast, jokingly said, “I went to the complete opposite of an HBCU because I like doing shit the hard way.” In light of conflicts in the past couple of weeks—at Mizzou, Yale, Bowie State, Amherst, Loyola, Ithaca, Stanford,and others—HBCUs may re-emerge as meccas of black culture, where students can prioritize and explore their identities without recourse. “There wasn’t enough blackness on campus for me to realize that there were different types,” Clayton later said.

Shani O. Hilton, an editor at Buzzfeed who recently coordinated a project highlighting HBCUs, said on Another Round, “There’s something about when you strip away the oppressive bullshit of white supremacy from your life in terms of your everyday making moments—from walking down the street, crossing the quad, getting in line to get a meal, sitting in class—that toll of, ‘Did that person do that because I’m black?’ is gone.” She told Clayton, “It just opens up your mind and gives you an elevation to your step to your way of moving around the world that I think is hard to replicate in other environment.”

HBCUs are battling challenges that range from sliding enrollment to less-than-preferable graduation rates to losses in accreditation.  Still, although they are not perfect, and deal with some of the same institutional campus crises facing predominantly white institutions, alumni of historically black colleges cite the appeal of their inclusive and tight-knit communities. While they represent just 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll 11 percent of African American students in the United States. And what these universities do offer in excess is the opportunity for students to choose to prioritize their racial identity in a highly visible way.

Critics of HBCUs have called the institutions archaic, and their students unrealistic for choosing to support a system that isn’t reflective of the experiences they will have post-grad. “There’s no question around whether HBCUs are relevant,” Sekou Biddle, the vice president of advocacy for the United Negro College Fund, said at a conference last week. “The question is why don’t you know that HBCUs matter.” The answer to that question may be that HBCUs have been evaluated in a way that focuses much more on the “historical” than it does on the “black.” According to detractors, HBCUs have outlived their purpose. As minority students gained access to opportunities at mainstream colleges, the utility of supporting schools whose origins are rooted in segregation noticeably waned. Meanwhile, recent discussions have focused on the consequences of relying on “safe places”—places presumably like HBCUs—as a means of isolating students from experiences, such as racist activity, that have the potential to pose them any emotional harm. In their recent cover story for The Atlantic, "The Coddling of the American Mind," Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn against these inclinations:

The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.

Despite the fact that black college graduates overall have lower graduation rates and higher rates of unemployment, black graduates of HBCUs are more likely to be “thriving” than their peers at other institutions, according to a new Gallup poll. My colleague Gillian White has noted that the reports of greater social, financial, and community wellbeing could be linked to the culture of the most well-off HBCU campuses:

HBCU grads were substantially more likely to say that they had professors who cared about them and mentors who helped them pursue their goals. They also felt certain that their school prepared them well for post-grad life. These feelings may help help explain why alums of HBCUs are so much more likely (49 percent vs. 34 percent for black grads who didn’t attend HBCUs) to say that their university is the perfect place for someone similar to them, and why they have so much affinity for these institutions, despite the fact that many of these colleges and universities are struggling.

Indeed, HBCUs may have been created in response to a broken and segregated higher-education system, but many of their students may be thriving in part because they’ve continued to carve out the safe spaces that their cohorts at other institutions are still trying to prove matter. Morehouse, an all-male HBCU, says on their website that “after being ignored, stereotyped or marginalized, it’s about finally finding that “home” that, deep inside, you always knew existed, where you are the heart, soul and hope of the community. And where you are not alone.”

In his 1993 Atlantic article, Nicholas Lemann examined  Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania as a way to illustrate the different approaches that black students at different types of colleges took to constructing black nationalist identities. While this is not a perfect comparison (Temple is not an HBCU, but had what might have been the largest number of black students at predominantly white universities at the time), Lemann’s characterizations of Temple and Penn’s students mirror stigmas attached to HBCU and mainstream students. He notes that students at the highly black schools are seem as separatist and self-segregating, while majority-white school students are categorized as actively assimilating to white campus cultures:

From a white perspective, what looks like a sensible way to evaluate the thinking of black America is to imagine an axis with a cluster of views at each end. One cluster is politically liberal and culturally separatist; the other is conservative and assimilationist. Individual blacks' views can be plotted somewhere along the axis.

HBCUs allow students to unapologetically learn—without fear of violent criticism—about themselves as it pertains to their race. As the protests that ensued just this month indicate, minority students at mainstream institutions are often left to navigate their own community issues while facing negative reaction from their white peers and without much support from their university administrations. In her New Yorker piece, O’Rourke also explains the buildup that students on these campuses encounter. “It’s hard not to see the Yale case as emblematic of a vicious cycle—and, in this way, different from some of the other recent conflicts on college campuses: élite institutions allow inequities to continue without successfully addressing them, in turn making resentment build. And then, when emotions flare up, we chastise the firebrands for speaking with emotional heat, for not being ‘reasonable.’ That’s a cool—and rather cruel—logic for you.” Black students demanding equality and justice at white institutions were at times met with confusion, and at other times threats from their peers. Lemann uses the Temple and Penn students to illustrate this:

Why is integration perceived as bad? First, because the students see black America as being in a crisis—one that they, as its most fortunate children, are morally obliged to try to help solve. Second, because embracing integration looks perilously similar to rejecting blackness, one's own and the rest of the race's. Finally, because they perceive life in white America as being a constant, endless, draining struggle against prejudice … A black college student's nationalism can be divided in half: part of it is a working out of one's relationship with black America, and part is the working out of one's relationship with white America. The students at Temple are more focused on the former, the students at Penn on the latter.

As the number of protests on campuses across the country increases, it is becoming obvious that some students at predominantly white institutions are committed to holding their institutions accountable. It’s up to mainstream universities to understand the ways in which they have conflated diversity and inclusion as it pertains to these students, and note that accepting diverse candidates is only the first step to building inclusive communities, not the end goal.

In the post-Brown v. Board of Education educational landscape, HBCUs have struggled to quiet the critics questioning their relevance. At a time in which young black people are constantly attempting to have their voices heard, the ability to prioritize race as a meaningful marker in their college experience by attending HBCUs might factor into college choices more than it once had. Pushing for an inclusive university means pushing for a place that doesn't place on minority students the same type of burdens—discrimination, racism—that they’re bound to face once they graduate. HBCU students have the advantage that concern for their mental, emotional, and psychological well-being as young black adults is, traditionally at least, ingrained into the fabric of their institutions. That is what a safe space looks like for colleges today—a place that insulates students from the American racial injustices, not one that magnifies it.