What the Right Doesn’t Understand About Black Colleges

Historically African American institutions serve a vital purpose, and it’s not segregationist to urge black athletes to attend them.

People in graduation caps sit together.
Howard University graduates await the commencement speaker Chadwick Boseman in May 2018. (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, I urged top black athletic recruits to attend historically black colleges. One of the more absurd criticisms I received afterward was that Martin Luther King Jr.—a graduate of Morehouse College—wouldn’t approve of such a suggestion.

Bad enough that I was called a racist. A segregationist. Even a black supremacist —whatever that is. Worse still, by daring to challenge black athletes to redirect their talents to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), I was somehow betraying King, along with the color-blind vision he supposedly laid out in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. One reader sent me a screenshot of that speech, insisting that I read it and take notes.

In that same spirit, I would direct that reader and others to Harry Belafonte’s memoir, My Song, in which the entertainer and activist relayed a sobering story about King, a dear friend of his who spoke at Belafonte’s New York apartment a week before his assassination. “What deeply troubles me now,” King told the group, “is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.” In his final years, King pretty clearly came to the understanding that no amount of integration would, on its own, make up for a long history of economic injustice. That hasn’t stopped conservatives from invoking “I Have a Dream” against affirmative action—and an idea like mine—or from putting themselves forward as the true defenders of race neutrality.

On Fox News this week, the host Laura Ingraham described my proposal as “resegregating the country.” It isn’t; black athletes are free to go anywhere they like, and nonblack students have always been allowed to attend HBCUs, too. Regardless, instead of mislabeling my argument, conservatives should have been applauding it.

For years, commentators on the right have lectured black people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. (Let’s put aside, for the moment, everything that’s wrong with that argument, which presumes that individual achievement can successfully overcome centuries of institutionally racist policies.) I am encouraging black people to use their athletic talents for the good of their own community. College football and basketball have become billion-dollar empires. College coaches and administrators make millions in salary because of the lucrative television and merchandise deals that marquee black talent has helped them secure. These same athletes could help rebuild, revitalize, and strengthen HBCUs, which were black athletes’ only option during segregation, but which have since struggled financially and academically.

Times have changed, but the HBCUs play an outsize role in cultivating future black professionals and community leaders. Despite constituting only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the country, HBCUs have, for instance, produced 80 percent of the nation’s black judges and 50 percent of its black doctors. Even President Donald Trump, whom very few black Americans view as an ally, understands that these schools deserve federal support. “This nation owes a profound debt of gratitude to its HBCUs,” he told more than 40 leaders from such schools at a conference this week.

And if top college prospects were to attend HBCUs, then the benefits would ripple outward through the black community at large.

You might think this message would resonate with conservatives. Self-reliance rather than increased government dependency? Using capitalism and market forces to improve your community’s lot in life? These strategies are part of the conservative Ten Commandments. But the notion that black athletes would use their own talents to build up historically black institutions rather than make money for majority-white ones is, for some reason, unthinkable.

In fact, the accumulation of black wealth and talent has always been feared—sometimes leading to tragic results for African Americans. Historians believe the the Tulsa massacre in 1921 was born out of white racial resentment toward affluent African Americans, who used their oil wealth to turn Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood into a thriving enclave known as “Black Wall Street.” Those resentments exploded into violence after it was rumored that a black teenager had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old white female elevator operator. Angry whites destroyed Greenwood during the 18-hour race riot, which resulted in 300 black people dead, and 10,000 people left homeless.

The United States kept black people from building wealth in other ways. When the GI Bill was created in 1944, some lawmakers feared that it would increase upward mobility for blacks, since the bill promised to provide war veterans with resources such as unemployment benefits, low-interest mortgages, and vocational training. Representative John Rankin of Mississippi, the chair of the House Veterans Committee at the time, successfully argued that the bill should be administered by individual states rather than the government. By doing that, Rankin, who also tried to block a provision that provided unemployment benefits to black soldiers, guaranteed that black soldiers would receive inequitable treatment.

So while white soldiers were using these benefits to buy homes and businesses during the height of the post–World War II housing boom, black soldiers were excluded from fully utilizing these benefits for years. And regardless of what the bill promised them, banks were unlikely to approve loans to black men, and educational opportunities were limited because of segregation and Jim Crow.

Had those black soldiers been treated fairly, today’s racial wealth gap might be considerably smaller. As many historians and economists have noted, if black soldiers had been able to fully participate in the postwar housing boom, there might have been wealth to pass down to subsequent generations. According to the latest data, the median average white family in the United States has a net worth of $171,000, while the average African American family has only $17,000.

The resistance to black empowerment exposes deep-held insecurities and blatant hypocrisy. Ingraham whines on her show that America isn’t white enough, and her fellow Fox News host Tucker Carlson complains that diversity is hurting the country. But it’s my essay that’s portrayed as a blow to racial progress! Neither Ingraham nor Carlson has shown much interest in racial advancement or integration before now. But the idea of black athletes banding together is threatening in some circles because it comes at the expense of white control over sports.

If I deserve criticism for anything, it would be for putting an unfair burden on black athletes—who, you could argue, should not be tasked with pitching in to save black colleges. The fact that black colleges don’t have the resources to attract them to their schools isn’t the athletes’ fault, and it’s the result of years of systemic problems that long predate their birth.

Still, problems don’t go away unless someone does something to fix them. After King shared with Belafonte his misgivings about the course of integration, Belafonte asked his friend what should be done now that they were inside the “burning house.” King responded that black people should “become the firemen.” He added: “Let us not stand by and let the house burn.”