Did the Obama backlash fuel HBCU mergers?

Following the inauguration of America’s first African-American president, a backlash is brewing against a critical stronghold of his black Southern support base: historically black colleges and universities.

HBCUs occupied a prominent place in President Barack Obama’s election strategy. Back when many wealthy political donors considered his candidacy a long shot, he raised sizable contributions from his appearances at HBCUs such as Howard, Florida A&M, Hampton and Xavier.

Obama also led rallies at North Carolina Central, South Carolina State and Mississippi’s Jackson State ahead of his Democratic primary wins in those states.

In the general election, three Southern states with vigorous HBCU “get-out-the-vote” initiatives — Virginia, North Carolina and Florida — went from red to blue.

Even in the southern states that Obama lost to GOP nominee John McCain, the rise in black turnout — widely mobilized from HBCU campuses — presented a serious problem for many Republicans locked in tight legislative and congressional elections.

Recently, two powerful GOP officeholders in Georgia and Mississippi (states Obama picked up in the primary) introduced proposals to weaken their states’ public HBCUs. Georgia state Sen. Seth Harp wanted to merge two HBCUs, Albany State and Savannah State, with nearby predominantly white schools. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the politically ambitious chairman of the Republican Governors Association, asked his state’s lawmakers to strip Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State of their autonomy and make them extension campuses of Jackson State.

The timing of these propositions was no coincidence. Another huge black voter turnout for Obama in 2012, coupled with the reapportionment processes driven by the 2010 Census, could trigger shake-ups in numerous Southern legislatures and congressional districts.

To rally support for HBCU mergers, proponents such as Harp have described their proposals as a step forward for integration. This argument, however, stands at odds with Martin Luther King Jr.’s stance on the role HBCUs should play in post-Jim Crow America. King repeatedly said integration in higher education was not about getting rid of HBCUs. Instead, he advocated investing more financial resources into HBCUs as a means of strengthening them and making them more attractive to people of all races.

Further, King identified “shared power” as an integral part of integration. Speaking against efforts to use integration as a ploy for reducing black political, economic and social leverage, he stated: “We don’t want to be integrated out of power; we want to be integrated into power.”

The HBCU merger proposals clearly fail King’s test for legitimate integration. If adopted, they would have a disparate and negative impact upon black political participation in those two states. The mergers would decimate the black-voter-mobilization networks centered at those HBCUs. They would also shrink the black middle class by paring down the number of black professors and administrators in the affected locales, curtailing black political-giving levels.

Although neither Harp’s nor Barbour’s merger plans has made significant headway toward becoming law, the attacks against public HBCUs will likely intensify as these institutions exert greater influence over future state and national election outcomes.

Despite being thinly disguised as “budget cutbacks” and “integration efforts,” today’s HBCU merger campaigns prove that even in the age of Obama, the legacy of backlash politics against black voters endures.

Instead of taking on hard fights such as restructuring their state tax codes to increase revenue, individuals like Harp and Barbour have chosen the easy path of racially divisive political opportunism.


0 responses to “Did the Obama backlash fuel HBCU mergers?”

  1. Merging can have it’s pro’s and cons but I think it’s unfair to HBCU’s. The real problem is appropriate funding and that should be addressed rather than a quick fix of a merger.

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