Trump’s Black History Month

President Trump’s first full month in office coincided with Black History Month. And on the face of it, February was a predictably Trumpian mess: His administration not only blundered from its February 1st listening session to last week’s awkward statements and bungled photo-ops. What began with verb-tense errors and shameful vagueness, revealing Frederick Douglass an albeit “impressive” unknown to the president, ended with ill-chosen words from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and an Oval Office group photo that spawned its own, unrelated mini-scandal.

But maybe it’s just as well. Because, underneath an appearance of chaos, Team Trump and the Republican Congress made public commitments to an impressive and too-often forgotten segment of the African-American community. The administration and Republican lawmakers have already advanced more significant promises than their predecessors ventured—and it’s hard to imagine they did it all for the “optics,” because the optics really were that bad.

Optics schmoptics

On the last day of February, the president signed an executive order to establish a White House initiative in support of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—what White House aide and Apprentice costar Omarosa Manigault, an HBCU graduate, had promised was “imminent” weeks prior. Meanwhile, South Carolina senator Tim Scott and Mark Walker, a congressman from North Carolina, hosted a summit for eighty presidents and chancellors of HBCUs on Capitol Hill.

“They were just really excited that for the first time they could remember, any of the presidents, this is the first time they’ve been offered an opportunity for them to have a voice in a conversation with members of Congress,” Senator Scott told reporters at the summit for college presidents. He focused on the historic nature of the meeting, and cast the Trump administration’s early attention to the HBCU community in contrast to the limited support they received during the Obama years, when an adjustment to student loan credit restrictions disproportionately damaged HBCU enrollment. (An astonishing 28,000 HBCU students, their families suddenly made ineligible for the loans they’d depended on, had to leave school.) And in 2011, the elimination of the year-round Pell grant program cut back federal funding for low-income students and the schools that serve them. “Our ability to move forward in any way shape or form will eclipse pretty quickly according to the presidents themselves what happened with the past relationship,” Scott said.

The president’s executive order and the significance of the HBCU summit were largely overshadowed. Secretary DeVos’s statements at the White House day before—that HBCUs, founded when African-American students were barred from attending traditional schools, are somehow related to her own educational philosophy of school choice: “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” This, Senator Scott told reporters, only goes to show the importance of careful word choice: “Is there a better to word things? Yes. I think at the end of the day my only response is clarity in your statements is always important.”

And Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said he found her comments “baffling.” But offensive? President Obama’s dismissive attitude toward black advocates—that was offensive, Taylor said. He cited a University of Chicago event to promote Merrick Garland’s nomination at which the then-president gave condescending answers to a critique of the high court’s limited diversity.

Historically underfunded, recently ignored

“We wrote President Barack Obama’s office every year for seven years of his presidency requesting the same meeting and it didn’t happen,” said Taylor, who has led the fund for seven years. And President Trump? “He’s clearly been more attentive.” And whatever the motivation, the meeting is a meaningful step toward allocating the funds HBCUs need.

Acknowledging that historically black colleges and universities—there are more than one hundred of them in the United States—are not a mere relic from a less perfect union is a revolutionary gesture. And if it turns out to have been an empty one, this administration will never hear the end of it.

The institutions have been historically underfunded, Taylor pointed out. “[To take] traditional institutions, the majority of institutions, that are funded well from the beginning and expect that we’re supposed to compete and win at the same level is unrealistic. So the case that we’ve made is that it’s time for America to do something to significantly invest to catch up HBCUs.”

And in the last eight years, they’ve suffered blows to funding and enrollment. State taxes went down, Taylor added—but also, “At the federal level, we didn’t get a lot of support from the Obama administration, and it was support we thought we’d get.” Moreso even than harmful policies and unhelpful remarks, it was President Obama’s inattention to the HBCU community that disappointed their leaders.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported, earlier last month, on the meaning and momentum of an investment in HBCUs by the new administration, a way to one-up the previous administration’s disappointing record:

It was, foremost, the former president’s dismissive and unfounded criticism of HBCUs that cast him their enemy. The damage Obama did to HBCUs was reputational insofar as his disparaging remarks permitted everyone to think less of HBCUs, and HBCUs to think less of him.

The president’s commencement speech at Morehouse College in 2013 was, for some, too close for comfort to preaching “respectability politics”—an instructive sermon on how black men should and shouldn’t behave. And at the time, Kimbrough told me, some wondered: “Why would you at the HBCU have that conversation about ‘you need to carry yourself a certain way’ when you didn’t do that at any other commencement addresses that you gave?”

[…]The value of the first black president’s endorsement cannot be overstated—and the damage done by the opposite? For many the perceived insult still stings, Kimbrough said. “A lot of people took that as a slap in the face because that’s coming from the president.”

And what’s worse for an Obama supporter like Kimbrough, and so many in the HBCU community, is that Obama showed he didn’t understand the challenges facing these schools that primarily serve low-income students. “If you have a student population that is high-Pell Grant, that has a lot of financial need, all of those institutions regardless of race have lower graduation rates.”

HBCUs serve a student population that is less likely to succeed at an expensive, majority white liberal arts college or big state school. They and their students need, at least, to be heard.

That’s Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans. He told THE WEEKLY STANDARD earlier last month that holding a listening session is all well and good, but he’d be looking for results from the Trump administration. Kimbrough, true to his word, released a statement following the White House’s event last week—to express his disappointment. He wrote that a spur-of-the-moment decision to bring 80 college presidents into the Oval Office detracted from the speaking time they had been promised. In other words, what was meant to be a listening session devolved into a photo-op, just as he and many others had feared it would.

“I’m still processing that entire experience. But needless to say that threw the day off and there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today—we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today,” Kimbrough wrote in a statement that included the remarks he would have made given the speaking time he had prepared to fill.

Kimbrough told me that he is still hopeful for results, waiting for a look at the budget. “I’m more interested in when the short version of the budget comes out March 16th and the full budget in May.” Year-round Pell grants and funding for deferred maintenance on campuses are what HBCUs most need to enroll and retain students. Work readiness programs, a longer term goal lawmakers discussed with college presidents, may follow from much-needed funding. The executive order from the president—not the first to address HBCUs—brings the initiative into the White House to signal that it is a special priority of the president. This, on its own, doesn’t mean a whole lot. “We can bring it into the White House, and then they’ll say well Pell grants are being cut. I’ve gained nothing,” Kimbrough said.

“Today was much better,” he added, when asked about his misgivings after the White House meeting the day before. “That is promising, that there are some people open for this dialogue, but in the end, it’s all about the budget.”

A semblance of an answer followed in an Appropriations Committee hearing the next day, when it was clear the time hadn’t quite come for the $25 billion HBCUs have repeatedly asked for. “It’s going to be tough for us to do what I know people would like to do for, say, historically black colleges, or what people would like to do for early childhood education or what people want to do in biomedical research,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and chair of the subcommittee on education. With a sharp increase in defense spending and sharp cuts to domestic spending, “There’s only so much money to go around.”

But expanding Pell grants looks more promising. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told college presidents at last week’s summit that he supports the restoration of these grants, saying “I like year-round Pell,” and “I think that makes a lot of sense.”

The work that still remains to be done

Recognizing these institutions’ exceptional service and exceptional need represents significant progress. It’s also an acknowledgement of a need unmet, what work remains to help HBCUs “catch up” to their competitors, as Taylor put it. The fight for civil rights isn’t over, as the president said in his joint address to Congress that same night. “Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path towards civil rights and the work that still remains to be done.”

The well-chosen line managed to acknowledge a racial anxiety many believe had a hand in the president’s victory, one of the more sinister interpretations of his call to “Make America Great Again.” And it also seemed to answer one of the tragic shortcomings of the previous administration—an overestimation of how far we’d come.

The practical and symbolic importance of a flourishing HBCU system can’t be oversold. And yet what should have been a winning photo-op for the optically-challenged administration filtered through the popular press as a high-speed blunderbuss wrapped around a gaffe factory.

I asked the man on the street (by which I mean a few friends and relatives) just to be sure—and, dutifully, their takeaways from Trump’s Black History Month were, one, his apparent ignorance of Frederick Douglass and, two, Secretary DeVos’s bizarre HBCU remarks. But the secretary’s HBCU remarks were a double-edged sword: As Taylor said, “At the end of the day, we’re about making sure that more than just the folks in Washington know what HBCUs are, but people around the country.” Of course, he was referring to mainstream media attention to the college presidents’ summit with lawmakers. Still, these schools’ renewed and sustained strength will require public understanding of their undiminished value. From there, a public investment in their sustained success—fulfilling a promise from the president—only gains greater traction. The fact the Education Secretary doesn’t quite get it just goes to show much work remains.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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