The president tried to appeal to the Black community during a recent visit by calling for the creation of a new HBCU. But that’s not even possible.
DETROIT, MI — President Donald Trump has had trouble connecting with Black voters since first announcing his candidacy for the nation’s highest office in 2015.
Just last week MSNBC released poll data that shows the president has only a 3% approval rating among Black voters nationally. There is a clear lack of interest in the Trump White House among Black voters.
That was probably on his mind when he came to Michigan this month in a campaign-style visit.
But rather than forge a connection with a community that he has no relation to, the president sat in an echo chamber of Black supporters who already praised his efforts.
Among the leaders present at last week’s listening session were State Representative Karen Whitsett and Congressional hopeful John James.
Whitsett, a Democrat representing District 9, gained media attention when she contracted COVID-19 but claimed hydroxychloroquine — the unapproved drug the President promotes — saved her life. The drug has no scientific backing and is not recommended to treat coronavirus.
James is a Republican who hopes to unseat Sen. Gary Peters in November, but new polling shows him lagging, likely due to his blind loyalty to President Trump’s policies, the Associated Press reported.
When the three came together in Michigan, they had one big idea to connect with Black Michiganders: to somehow bring a new historically black college or university (HBCU) to the state.
That’s not quite how it works, though.
The History: An Unpleasant Past
During the ugly time in America’s history when a Black person was considered to be only three-fifths a human being with no citizenship rights, Black people were not allowed to attend America’s institutions of higher learning, even if they were not enslaved.
Most HBCUs were established at this time during the Civil War and Reconstruction, though the first was founded in 1837. Free Black people worked with the American Missionary Association, the Freedmen’s Bureau and churches to establish schools to educate a population that was largely kept illiterate.
The Second Morrill Act of 1890 required states to provide land grants for institutions for Black students if they were unable to be educated elsewhere in the state, especially the former Confederate states that now make up the American South.
This created today’s HBCUs, many of which are listed among the nation’s top universities.
Michigan’s only HBCU, the Lewis College of Business, opened in 1928 as the second location of an Indianapolis-based school. It closed in 2013 after operating for more than 85 years.
But some Michigan legislators say the state should still have an HBCU.
A Historically Black School In Detroit?
During the presidential listening session in Detroit, Rep. Whitset took the time to bend the president’s ear about the possibility of opening an HBCU in the area.
“We don’t want to stay [in an economic position] where people are asking for things constantly. We want people to stand on their own two feet and take pride in their community,” Rep. Whitsett said to her fellow leaders and the president. “I would love to see a historical Black college in the city of Detroit.”
Trump seemed impressed with the idea and unofficially delegated that it be further explored.
“I think your idea about historically Black colleges and universities coming here,” he said to Rep. Whitsett and the room. “One real good one [university] is a great idea. That was an idea I hadn’t heard of.”
The president referred Rep. Whitsett to John James, who won the GOP nomination for the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Michigan but ultimately lost to incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow. He’s taking on another incumbent Democrat, Gary Peters, in this year’s Senate race.
James said he also supports the notion of a new Detroit-based HBCU.
“That’s a great idea,” James told the room, “and I’ve got a couple of ideas of exactly where to put it.”
Plans To Come?
But where does one establish a university campus in Detroit? And how does one establish a historical institution in 2020 with an immediate declaration of its historical significance? Can an institution erected in the 21st century be immediately called a historical site?
The ‘Gander reached out to both Rep. Whitsett’s office and James’ campaign for comment, but neither was available to explain.
HBCUs were founded out of necessity. Black Americans were turned away from the nation’s schools and were forced to educate themselves solely amongst themselves. It isn’t even legal in 2020 to discriminate against college applicants based on race.
Such necessities no longer exist. Especially in a time when HBCUs that were established as havens for Black students now have 100-year-plus traditions and are now available for all students, regardless of race.
Dr. Brenda Allen is the president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. The school is the nation’s first HBCU and has been in existence since 1854, nearly a decade before the enslavement of Black Americans was abolished.
“I don’t mean to correct the president [Trump], but he’s mistaken,” Dr. Allen told ‘The ‘Gander. “The HBCU designation is given to schools established before a certain date. If you weren’t established by that date, you weren’t considered a historically Black college or university.”
The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines HBCUs as “any historically Black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.”
“If the question is should Michigan be the site for another school with a predominant mission of educating African Americans, well that just becomes another choice for students,” Dr. Allen said. “I think the statement is misleading in that it takes a designation that can’t be applied, so the possibility of something like that just wouldn’t make sense.”
Detroiters Weigh In
Though Detroit is no longer home to its own HBCU campus, there is an extensive HBCU alumni network there. On Facebook, the Detroit HBCU Network group has over 2,700 members who were all educated at one (or more) of the nation’s HBCUs.
“It sounds good in theory,” said Sean Rouse, founder of the Detroit HBCU Network, ”but you also have to look at where it’s coming from. I honestly believe it’s a way of trying to secure Black votes.”
For now, there are no answers from the leaders present at the listening session about how the state government, which is already cash poor for education, will establish a university for a majority Black student body. But Trump says he’s on board with the idea that currently lacks concrete plans.
“They’ve got a lot of money now,” he said of the nation’s HBCUs. “They’re all set, so maybe we can work something out. We can talk about that.”
Last year, the president signed legislation that Congress presented that would increase the federal funding allocated to HBCUs. Since, he has claimed that he single-handedly “saved” the historical institutions — a claim that Inside Higher Ed has debunked.
Rouse agrees that HBCUs are not as financially secure as the president implied.
“These schools have been underfunded for decades,” he said. “If he wants to make an impact, quite honestly, give us our money.”
Cheryl Ajamu is owner and producer of the Detroit Football Classic, a heritage football game between competing Black schools. She says, if possible, the idea of an HBCU coming to the city is exciting.
“As someone who isn’t a graduate [of an HBCU] but who has gone to lots of events and is planning the Classic, there is a different level of respect and interaction between students and teachers at HBCUs. Everyone I talk to always says that they feel like a person and not a number.”
Rep. Whitsett has faith the White House will bring the idea to fruition.
“I think that would be amazing, and I think you’re just the president to make that happen,” she said.
This journalist won’t hold her breath.