According to the definition offered by the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, historically black colleges and universities are institutions of higher education that were established and accredited prior to 1964, with a primary intention that was — and continues to be — twofold: permitting the matriculation and education of black students and offering an alternative to predominately white institutions, or PWIs. I stress the significance of the second purpose of HBCUs because it always seems to be neglected whenever the black community — particularly among black college students, faculty and alumni — erupts into the polarizing debate about the superiority or inferiority of PWIs and HBCUs.
The recurring debate on social media has become a source of much contention, particularly among black college students. Despite the seldom appearance of a nuanced argument, the debate is most often predicated upon the notion of black superiority or inferiority based on the decision to attend either an HBCU or a PWI. Beyond the core argument the most important issue is why do we, as black people, engage in such a debate? Rather than argue in favor of either position and further this otherwise hackneyed discussion, I offer an alternate perspective on the issue: the bigger picture at hand is black achievement and excellence. And should that not be our focus as a people — to support and uplift one another, and advance the black community as a result?
Perhaps to many, such a conclusion seems patent. But if that were the case, what then would provoke an advocate of HBCU education to mock and justify the police brutality experienced by black students at PWIs, as a result of having not attended an HBCU? And what does it say about black conceptions of superiority and inferiority, when a student attending a PWI may contest that a 4.0 GPA is in someway of greater “value” — thus, more praiseworthy — than a 4.0 GPA at an HBCU?
As a black student, the feeling of always having to prove one’s “worth” — especially intellectually — has become an inescapable yet all too common experience. And the HBCU vs. PWI debate is merely an extension of that experience. The debate is the result of black people attempting to demonstrate our value, and, perhaps, that some black people are more valuable than others. Thus, I argue conceptions of superiority and inferiority have resulted in black students’ efforts to prove — in relation to other black people — whose success is more merited.
Reflecting on the debate over HBCUs vs. PWIs, I think back to my senior year of high school. I had finally narrowed my selections down to the University of Virginia and Howard University, perhaps the most renowned of the HBCUs. Prior to making my final decision, many people tried to sway me in one direction or the other and made me feel as if I were making a decision that would somehow affect the state of my blackness. In the end, however, I did what all black students must do — I made the decision that I felt was best for me. Contrary to what the HBCU vs. PWI debate suggests, that decision has nothing to do with how a person perceives her blackness or intellectual capabilities. Therefore, attending a PWI does not automatically signify a superior education, just as attending an HBCU does not indicate a closer connection to the black community or a more significant understanding of issues affecting black lives. However, for this idea to be solidified within the black community, we must decide no longer to denigrate each other and allow ourselves to thrive and succeed, in spite of the circumstance.
Ultimately, when I consider the HBCU vs. PWI debate, I am reminded of a quote that I stumbled recently and has seemed to stick with me ever since. According to a post from Twitter user @Anti_Intellect, a known voice within the HBCU vs. PWI debate, an anonymous author interestingly asserted, “Ironically, at HBCUs, Black students aren’t ‘Black’ anymore; they’re just students, as race has become a non-issue. This gives them a rare opportunity to be at liberty to explore everything else they are.” I would argue making the decision as a black student to attend a PWI — at which the black community stands at 6 percent — has forced myself and many of others to become hyper-aware of our blackness and has presented the rare opportunity to explore everything else we are, in addition to being black, an adjective we should not feel necessary to erase.
Many of us will leave our institutions — both HBCU and PWI — and move on in life to become black engineers, black doctors, black politicians, black business owners and we will celebrate ourselves and our people as a result. Thus, HBCUs and PWIs both maintain prestige and cultural relevance within the black community, by serving as an alternative — not a solution — to the other.
Jordan Brandon is a contributing writer for The Cavalier Daily and Black Student Alliance’s bi-weekly “What’s the Word” column.