Amid rising racial tension at PWIs, HBCU enrollment on the rise

American University sophomore Ma'at Sergeant isn't comfortable walking the suburban setting of her campus...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

American University sophomore Ma’at Sargeant isn’t comfortable walking the suburban setting of her campus.

“You have to be guarded,” Sargeant told in an interview.

It’s Wednesday morning, another day where Sargeant will be confronted with her reality: Receiving a top-flight education and…racism.

“[Some students are] saying we should go back to Africa, and you’re a slave,” Sargeant said.
“But the fact that it got physical is what really concerns me.”

Sargeant is referring to recent protests on her campus against racially-charged incidents that have students of color on edge at their own school. A black student claimed someone threw a banana at her, and another black student discovered a rotten banana outside her dorm room. There have also been inflammatory text messages sent around to black students at American, a predominantly white institution or PWI.

“At first I didn’t want to believe it,” said Sargeant, who is the president of her school’s Black Student Alliance.

After making the university aware of the events, the black students say the administration failed to address the matter timely or effectively.

As this is taking place on one Washington campus, a different protest is happening at another university less than five miles away.

During a football game at nearby Howard University, the school’s cheerleading squad staged a protest in response to injustices against blacks in America.

The entire cheerleading squad knelt during the national anthem, following the example set by San Fransisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Howard is one of the most prestigious HBCUs (Historically Black College or University) in the nation, and senior double major Dominique Marshall raves about her experience.

“I will become a dentist, and I will own my own practice,” Marshall said. “If I were to say that in the middle of Missouri, people would look at me crazy… but that’s all I know.”

Marshall grew up in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, one of America’s most affluent, predominately black counties where minority-owned businesses are just a normal way of life.

“I’ve never had a white doctor, or white professionals deal with my situations,” Marshall said. “My mom is a dentist; she has a lawyer, and he is black. My dentist is black, my pediatrician is black, my general physician is black, my dermatologist is black.”

Many of those same black professionals attended an HBCU. It’s part of the reason Marshall never seriously entertained the idea of attending a predominately white institution. She said that while Howard may not have been the only place she could achieve her career goals, she wanted to surround herself with like-minded black students.

“When I spoke to my other friends that were from PWIs, it just kind of seems like they were missing something,” she said.

Recent reports show enrollment at HBCUs have increased. According to the National Center for Educational statistics, nearly 38 percent of HBCUs reported an enrollment increase of 10 percent in the 2013-2014 academic year.

Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough sees a direct correlation between higher HBCU enrollment and the rising racial tensions at some PWI campuses. Kimbrough told NPR that students of color want to see themselves reflected in the classroom, faculty and physical spaces.

Chris Cathcart co-authored the book The HBCU Experience, a book outlining the legacy and experiences of students who have attended HBCUs.

“For young people, an opportunity to go to an environment that is supportive and nurturing, reflective of them politically and socially is going to be an attractive option,” Cathcart said.

Sargeant agrees.

“The majority of the students here have considered going to an HBCU,” she said. “A lot of students are like, ‘I wish I went to an HBCU, just because we are in a PWI and always having to be on guard, always kind of having to watch how you speak, who you speak to and just be on edge because you know that you are surrounded by people who may be racist.'”

Criticism of HBCUs practicing ‘self-segregation’ has been at the forefront of arguments regarding the institutions, but Cathcart explains, “Attending an HBCU isn’t like going from Kansas to Oz, it’s not like a place separate from the real world.”

Cathcart goes on to say, “I never bought that concept of self-segregating because even within the context of an HBCU, you are still a citizen of the United Sates, you are still within the borders of this country. You still deal day-to-day with the issues that society puts upon you.”

In short, historically black colleges were established to educate blacks at a time when they were not allowed to attend white schools. HBCUs have not only remained a place to train and educate blacks and other races but have become a fabric of the black community and culture passed on through generations.

While grappling with economic hardships, the institutions have been the focus of much debate concerning their relevancy of what some critics of the institutions regard as today’s “post-racial America.”

Chris Sumlin attends Morehouse College in Atlanta. Sumlin received his associate degree while attending a PWI. He then decided to attend Morehouse.

“I do think in an educational environment, in an academic environment, that people want to be in a place that’s going to service them holistically,” Sumlin said. “And no better place does that than at an HBCU.”

Black college students nationwide have increasingly filed complaints and protested against racism at mostly predominately white institutions.

This fall, some black students attending Claremont College in California requested non-white roommates as a way to create a “safe space” while learning. It was met with heavy criticism.

“I do think that [black] people just kind of want to be segregated and kind of want to get prepared,” Sumlin said. “So when they do go in spaces that aren’t black, they have some sense of identity and they have awareness.”

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education crowdsourced a list of more than 100 campus racial incidents dating back to 2011. And FBI data revealed more than 780 hate crimes took place on college campuses in the year of 2013.

“Even though Morehouse is quote unquote a monolithic experience in regards to the fact that it’s African-American men, it is the most diverse campus I’ve ever been to in my life,” Sumlin said. “I’ve never seen so many different kinds of people under the same umbrella.”

Sargeant looks at what is going on at her campus and can’t help but think of what life would be like as a college student at an HBCU.

“You are being taught by someone whose identity aligns with yours.” she said. “A lot of students [at American University] wish they could have professors that they see themselves in and get an education from a ‘black’ point of view.”

American University President Neil Kerwin released the following statement in response to the banana incidents on campus. Here is a portion of his statement:

I share with many of you deep disappointment and frustration that these events have disrupted our community and challenged our efforts to build an inclusive campus culture. They simply have no place here. We will confront racist expressions with forceful condemnation and respond to discrimination with every tool at our disposal. It is incumbent on the university to respond clearly and to educate those who cause harm with their insensitivity and ignorance.

Sargeant isn’t buying it. She calls her school’s response “extremely weak” and notes that no students have been held accountable for the incident.

Ashantai Hathaway is a reporter at theGrio. Keep up with her on Twitter @ashantaih83.