Years ago, The Root Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton and I were having a conversation about America’s jacked-up relationship with black people. We were enslaved for more than 200 years, lived under American apartheid for another century, and then finally, in the last 50 years or so, America has made a half-hearted attempt to erase its terrible history while simultaneously “honoring” us with a few statues, some PBS specials and commercials featuring the greatest Dodge Ram truck salesman to ever take a police baton to the head.
“America is like that uncle who molested you for years, then shows up at the last minute to pay your way through college,” she said.* Which is a sadly apt metaphor. America has beaten black folks down so badly that often we’ll settle for a tuition check over justice just to get on with life.
A sum of $100 million from a few NFL owners bought players’ silence on police brutality and discrimination; $98 million got Ally Financial and Ally Bank out of full charges for years of discrimination against black and brown car buyers. Apparently, about $100 million buys a lot of silence from black folks, but I guess the exchange rate for justice isn’t quite the same in the state of Maryland.
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan offered $100 million over 10 years for the four HBCUs in the state to settle a 12-year-old discrimination lawsuit. And the collective response was a polite and well-worded, “Thanks, but nah.”
In 2000 the state of Maryland signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights to dismantle decades of institutional discrimination in funding and capital investment and address program duplication with regard to the four HBCUs in the state.
By 2006, when it was pretty obvious that the state wasn’t going to do anything to fix the problems, the HBCUs came together like Voltron and sued the state over these issues, the most egregious being “program duplication.”
In most state college systems, the government is supposed to make sure that some schools get to keep specialized programs so they stay competitive. For example, you can major in English anywhere in the state of Maryland, but only three colleges are allowed to have aerospace engineering programs.
So what is “program duplication,” and why was it worth HBCUs suing the state of Maryland? You know how every other month, the Kardashian clan gets caught stealing an idea from a black person, slapping their name on it and selling it faster because they’ve already got the connections?
That’s white schools in Maryland. Whenever a historically black college would develop an innovative graduate program or major—one that might actually draw white students away from predominantly white institutions—suddenly those majors would start showing up at other schools.
Since those white institutions already had funding and capital advantage because of years of discrimination, they could get their “product” to market faster, undermine black colleges and perpetuate a cycle of segregation that has always plagued the state’s education system.
Judge Catherine C. Blake pointed out this issue when she ruled in 2013 that the state of Maryland basically did nothing to address segregation.
“Maryland’s HBIs [historically black institutions] offer only 11 nonduplicated, high-demand, noncore programs, compared with 122 such programs at TWIs [traditionally white institutions], for an average of 17 per TWI and only 3 per HBI,” Judge Blake wrote (pdf). “Unique, high-demand programs are a key reason white students attend HBIs in other states, and, without them, HBIs ‘are identified by their racial history as opposed to [their] programs.’”
She continued: “The state offered no evidence that it had made any serious effort to address continuing historic duplication. Secondly, and even more troublingly, the state has failed to prevent additional unnecessary duplication, to the detriment of the HBCUs.”
After years of court-mandated mediation, the two sides still couldn’t come up with a solution, so the judge has now ordered a “special master” ( I know, problematic language given the subject matter) to oversee the creation of innovative programs at black schools and do something about the cloned courses.
Gov. Hogan and the state of Maryland keep appealing the decision, arguing a legalese version of “What had happened was” to explain why no changes have been made. On Wednesday, Hogan, in a tacit acknowledgment that the state would keep taking Ls in court, offered $100 million in HBCU funding over 10 years if the colleges would drop their suit.
Members of Maryland’s legislative black caucus and lawyers for the coalition of HBCUs have embraced the offer, suggesting that it’s a “move in the right direction” and a “legitimate offer,” which at best is the legal equivalent of leaning back in your chair, folding your arms and saying, “What else you got?” and which more likely means, “Nah, we’re good with still suing you, fam.”
The coalition lawyers have continued to point out that any offer that doesn’t address program duplication is basically dead on arrival, no matter how much cash the governor throws out. It’s nice to see black institutions stay unbossed and unbought for once instead of just jumping at the first big offer that’s slid across the table.
With Betsy “Jim Crow Was the Original-Recipe School Choice” DeVos destroying the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, and with part-time HBCU advocate Omarosa Manigault Newman single-handedly raising the black unemployment rate on the Big Brother couch, black colleges have no federal help and are going to have to handle their business in the courts and the press, which is not such a bad thing.
HBCUs have been having a renaissance in funding, attendance and resources over the last few years; perhaps that newfound power has led to more boldness when it comes to tackling long-term institutional racism. You have to figure that a college full of smart black people knows that a fat check and a 10-year commitment doesn’t add up to addressing 300 years of discrimination.
*So apparently my editor, Danielle Belton, was citing a Chris Rock routine from Never Scared when she likened America to a molester uncle. Which upsets me for two reasons. First, I considered myself a pretty strong Chris Rock fan and can’t believe I didn’t know that line. Second, I have related this misremembered conversation at dinner parties for years and nobody else ever pointed it out. I can’t believe Never Scared has faded this much from memory.