Friday, November 7, 2008

HBCUs and the White World

Does graduating from Howard University, one of America's historically black universities, put someone at a racial disadvantage? It is an old question, but some of my students are still asking it. To find an answer, I'd probably have to go back even farther than my college days -- at least back to high school.

I graduated from Brooklyn Tech in the late 1980s. At the time, it was one of New York City's three "specialized" public high schools, and students took a test to get in. Tech was (and still is) one of the largest public schools in the city. During my stint, we had about 5,000 students combined in all four grades -- and a little under 1,000 in my graduating class.

Tech was an engineering/technical school, so most students were supposed to be preparing for jobs in some version of the hard sciences or their more practical occupational offshoots. We even had to choose majors; mine was electrical engineering. I don't know how many students went on to work in fields associated with their chosen majors, but I left Tech hoping never to see another ohm or ampere ever again.

More than any other school I had previously attended, Tech was ethnically and racially diverse. I had friends from all five boroughs and from many different cultural backgrounds: West Indian, Chinese-American, Jewish, Italian-American, Dominican, African-American, you name it. Most of them fit snugly into one of two camps: (i) underachievers like me who were smart but inconsistently invested in their school work and (ii) AP-course-takers poised to translate their straight-A high school record into a spot at any of the most prestigious colleges in the country.

I was also something of an underachiever in high school. I did pretty well, I guess, and even found myself in a couple of "honors" classes during my junior and senior years, but I was also an FM radio disc jockey at the time (91.5's The Jackson Attraction Radio Show), so I was devoting much more energy to that part of my daily life -- my burgeoning (and short-lived) stint as a would-be media celebrity. As a function of that prioritizing, my grades were decent, but they were far from stellar.

When I graduated, Tech boasted something like a 95-percent college placement rate. Some of those folks were going to community colleges. Others were going to Ivy League schools. The two groups were discretely tracked, so there wasn't much substantive contact between them during class time (even if the under- and over-achievers crossed paths a bit more at lunch and after school).

As one of the Tech's many straddlers (middling students poised between those two scholastic tracks), I realized that I received two drastically different responses to my college choice. Some of my friends were excited by the fact that I'd gotten into Howard University, an important historically black university in Washington, D.C. The higher achievers, however, wondered whether I had simply missed the deadlines for better places. They also warned me that attending a black college wouldn't prepare me for life in "the white world." It wasn't a realistic environment for learning, they said. "Plus, D.C. is so dangerous," I can still remember one classmate warning, "you'll get killed down there, man. You must have a death-wish."

It is an old argument, but I know that HBCU undergrads must get some retooled versions of it these days.

I ended up loving Howard, and I learned a ton. When I was there, some of the students joked that Howard purposefully made our everyday lives so incredibly difficult (in big and small ways) only and altruistically to prepare us for the slings and arrows of real-world hardships. We were being funny, but we also imagined that making it through Howard meant that we could take anything the world might throw our way.

Every once in a while, I do think about what kind of weird adjustment it was to go from Howard to Columbia's graduate program in anthropology, from classrooms full of black students (usually taught by black faculty members) to classes where I was sometimes the only black person in the room. Truth be told, I have always been very shy, and I didn't talk much in my classes at Howard. But I definitely felt the added pressure of that proverbial (and implicit) racial ambassadorship.

But when my Penn undergrads ask me if Howard put me at a disadvantage in the real world, I say, definitely not.

I still sometimes marvel at the atypicality of my collegiate experience. I was able to increase my self-confidence as a thinker and writer -- all in a supportive environment that lacked any hint of the kinds of racist rhetorics of assumed intellectual inferiority that sometimes predetermine people's expectations about the lone black student in their midst, expectations those targeted students can sometimes feel the need to actively (and over-actively) counter. Of course, that impulse can boomerang around to become just another factor making it even more difficult to speak freely in mixed racial company. But my years at Brooklyn Tech and Howard gave me powerful counterpoints to some of the experiences I'd have later on (as both a graduate student and a faculty member) in the sometimes scandalously non-diverse world of the academy.

[The video above shows Hazel O'Leary, President of Fisk University, discussing her own school (and the current state of HBCU's) at a recent Congressional hearing.]

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