Trump’s viral HBCU photo is more than meets the eye

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

It doesn’t take much these days for a photo to go viral.

One such photo became an instant meme on Monday after 64 HBCU presidents were photographed with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office during a White House visit with the administration.

For most, that initial picture of President Trump surrounded by mostly black men, many of them smiling, was only slightly unsettling. The idea that any person of color would engage in the ritual photo-op with a president who so regularly trucks in racist innuendo, stereotypes, and discriminatory policies is almost enough to ignore the financial plight of our nation’s most storied institutions of higher learning: Historical Black Colleges and Universities.


–Trump meets with HBCU presidents, and people aren’t too happy–

HBCUs have not fared well in the neo-liberal marketplace of 21st century education for many reasons. Traditional HBCUs – nearly a redundant statement – were born in the racial justice cauldron of The Reconstruction Era. They have always held fast to the most powerful social and racial justice ideals in their education mission: to serve traditionally underserved communities and to prepare those who are systematically underprepared. A history of systemic, unequal federal and state funding has only been exacerbated by the over-privatization of college funding in contemporary times. HBCUs have always done more with less, but in recent years, it has taken its toll.

An Obama policy that changed the ways in which parents access federal loans for their children to attend college had a disparate impact on black families and HBCUs. Even when his administration tried to correct it, they still left thousands of loans and potential HBCU students out in the cold. Fast forward to the Trump administration and HBCU presidents understand that, no matter who is president of the United States, without an equitable and historical correction in the funding models for HBCUs that puts them on equal footing with their PWI counterparts, some of these institutions simply will not survive.

So for many who saw the first iteration of the HBCU presidents’ photo op with President Trump, the complicated fiduciary and enrollment challenges faced by HBCUs was enough to provide some collective understanding of why these group of mostly black male institutional leaders felt compelled to meet with Trump.

Then another version of the photo began to circulate.

In another photo, the HBCU presidents aren’t uniformly smiling and posing for the camera. And in the lower left quadrant of the image, Kellyanne Conway, who serves as counselor to the president, is seen on her cell phone, sitting with her legs folded beneath her, on a couch in the Oval office. The gasps heard around the Internet were almost as loud those heard around the world this past Sunday after La La Land was incorrectly announced as the winner for Best Picture.

Timelines and social media feeds have been aflutter with comments and confusion about the Kellyanne photograph. It’s equal parts “Oh no you didn’t . . .” and “Seriously black people, I don’t know why you’re upset about this.”

The Kellyanne version of the HBCU presidential photo op circulated so quickly and so pervasively that even a couple of my troglodyte-ish friends who have sworn off of all social media, text-messaged me the image. No caption needed. Yet and still, writer and social media maven Ira Madison tweeted the image with the following caption: “Get Out 2.” While many laugh hysterically at the meme’d version of the HBCU presidential photo-op, too many others have felt left out of the joke.

But maybe there is no joke here.

The photo-op, even in its original version, is disconcerting for many African-Americans for many reasons. For one, it saddens some that HBCUs, institutions that have produced black excellence for well over a century, have had their sustainability threatened. We also need to understand why — judging from the lack of female representation in the Oval Office — there are not more black women in leadership positions at our HBCUs. But more importantly, will President Trump actually install substantive policy changes that positively impact the futures of these institutions, or is he simply taking any opportunity — even a photographic one — to outdo former President Obama in an area where he underperformed?

The meme-worthy image of Trump counselor Conway gives us a deeper vantage point into just how his administration operates behind the White House walls, making it open season for critics to deconstruct his meeting with HBCU leaders. It was too tempting to resist.

While President Trump’s convening with HBCU presidents may have been about formality in the Oval Office, Kellyanne Conway and how she was sitting during the forum may provide more telling context than we think.

Her informal posture gave viewers the tools to deconstruct the photographic moment, and to decipher all of the things inherently wrong with the original photo-op in the first place. We simply needed a meme to unleash all of our frustrations.

So for that, thank you, Kellyanne. Thank you very much.

Dr. James Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University, and is a contributor of MSNBC.