Dismantling ‘separate but equal’, by David W. Marshall
9/28/2023, 6 p.m.
As a sitting vice president, it remains to be seen if Kamala Harris will eventually follow the political pathway of Joe Biden and ultimately ascend to the highest office in the nation.
Vice President Harris, who graduated from Howard Univer- sity in 1986, already has made history by becoming the first vice president to have graduated from a historically Black college or university.
Her historic election was a proud and inspirational moment not only for the Howard University community, but for the entire HBCU family.
The HBCU legacy of shaping and educating future Black entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, public servants, teachers, architects and engineers continues to be fulfilled despite the challenges resulting from limited funding and resources. The struggles facing all HBCUs are no secret, but they are deep-seated, and the root causes behind them are complex.
Despite being underinvested institutions with small endowments, tight budgets and higher percentages of students depending on Pell Grants, historically Black colleges and universities serve a critical mission. HBCUs always have had to do more with less, but this should not be the case for the HBCUs federally designated as land-grant schools.
Land-grant institutions are universities or colleges that benefited from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890—proposed when Sen. Justin Morrill of Vermont served in the
House of Representatives, the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 set aside federal lands— wrongfully taken from Indigenous nations—to create agricultural and mechanical schools exclusively for white students.
With the passing of the Agricultural College Act of 1890 (the Second Morrill Act), 19 HBCU land-grant institutions were established to provide a similar education system for Black students, primarily in the South. This Reconstruction Era legislation aimed to provide a “just and equitable” allocation of funds between the 1862 and 1890 universities. Unfortunately, the reality of racial discrimination will always undermine any law recognizing that people of all backgrounds don’t start in the same place in society.
By taking advantage of ambiguous legislative language, the states created a loophole to use when providing greater appropriations to white land-grant institutions. The funding disparity and shortchanging of HBCUs are obvious to many philanthropic groups, resulting in millions of dollars being donated to HBCUs. But states should never be let off the hook. The Biden administration is taking note of the more than $12 billion disparity between HBCUs and white institutions. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to 16 state governors calculating how their respective state land-grant HBCU institution was underfunded from 1987 to 2020.
For example, North Carolina A&T State University has a $2 billion funding disparity com- pared with North Carolina State University, an original 1862 land -grant institution. Likewise, Prairie View A&M University in Texas and Southern University and A&M in Louisiana have $1.1 billion in underfunding compared to the 1862 land-grant institutions in their states. The letters were sent to the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
The question remains: What will be the long-term response by each state? The dismantling of segregation laws in the 1960s did not mean states fully ended discrimination when funding HBCUs. The legal doctrine of “separate but equal” was always a sham that never provided equal protection, accommodations or facilities for all people.
The current disparity in financial support shows HBCUs often are seen as an after-thought, and in other cases, a continuation of the “separate but equal” mindset where states’ rights perpetuated a racial culture where governors and state lawmakers were emboldened to do whatever they wanted to do against people of color.
The Biden administration appears willing to dismantle the long-term effects of “separate but equal.” Having a U.S. vice president who is an HBCU grad should be a constant reminder that HBCU students are well worth the investment.
The writer is the founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body.