The Mizzou Scandal Shows Why Black Colleges Are Still Vital

The Mizzou Scandal Shows Why Black Colleges Are Still Vital

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe’s resignation Monday underscores how even in 2015, majority-white institutions remain potentially unsafe places for black students.

The events leading up to Wolfe’s resignation—the racist verbal assaults on campus, the swastika written in feces in a residential hall, and ultimately the administration’s inadequate response to students’ concerns—are all too familiar to longtime advocates of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

As Darrick Hamilton argues in the Fall issue of The American Prospect, tenacious campus discrimination demonstrates the ongoing and urgent need for HBCUs. Such institutions offer students an environment free both from institutional biases and overt hostility, Hamilton and his coauthors note. Yet HBCUs face the danger of extinction amid mounting financial strain.

“Despite the promise of integration, black students frequently report feelings of isolation and the burden of representing their race in alien spaces,” Hamilton writes. “Some spaces are not only alien, but explicitly hostile.”

In “Why Black Colleges and Universities Still Matter,” Hamilton and his co-authors describe recent incidents at other college campuses that, in the context of the recent Missouri scandal, have an eerily familiar ring. In December of last year, he notes, “members of the Clemson chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity threw a gang-themed ‘Cripmas’ party. The university placed SAE on probation in April 2015 for two years.”

In March at the University of Oklahoma, the same fraternity made headlines after, as Hamilton describes it, “video surfaced of University of Oklahoma SAE chapter members singing, ‘There will never be a nigger at SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger at SAE.’ The chapter was immediately shut down, but the damage from this egregious case, which just happened to be caught on video, is done.”

Tensions at Missouri had been brewing for a while (for a timeline of the events, see here), but a catalyzing event was a September Facebook post from Missouri Students Association President Payton Head, written after passersby had called him the n-word.

It wasn’t the first time. A similar incident during Head’s sophomore year was what galvanized him to first seek student office.

“I realized I had a decision to make,” Head told the student news source The Maneater after the Facebook post went viral. “I could go back down South to the historically black college that was still offering me a scholarship, but then I realized, what would I be doing if I left?” he wrote. “This place is my home, but I want my home to be better.”

Only about 7 percent of Mizzou students are black. However, as Dave Zirin pointed out in The Nation, more than two-thirds of the school’s beloved football team, the center of a loyal sports culture and a huge cash cow, are black. It was those athletes who ultimately forced administrators to respond.

At historically black colleges and universities, discrimination takes a financial, if not a social toll. Loss of state support and declining revenues for public and private HBCUs are putting their existence at risk, Hamilton and his colleagues note. Private HBCUs received far less revenue per student than their traditionally white counterparts, and HBCUs rely more on government funding. Black students in turn rely more heavily on loans, many of them predatory or risky.

While the postwar GI Bill infused unprecedented amounts of money in higher education, blacks were still shut out of many historically white schools and had far more limited access to federal aid. The student group behind many of the protests at Missouri in the past few months is Concerned Student 1950, a reference to the first year the university admitted a black student. Sixty-five years later, disparities still exist.