Students’ Insult to DeVos Embarrasses HBCUs

I was a little concerned when Donald Trump won. I didn’t believe the “fake news” that Trump was racist─sure, his father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally, but that was his father; Bill Clinton in the 1990s praised the United Daughters of the Confederacy multiple times─I just figured since Trump won without the black vote, he would follow Republican orthodoxy.

In other words, I thought we’d hear arguments about how historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are anachronistic, or worse, racist. The latter, of course, is a false charge, as I have taught students from Saudi Arabia and Iran at my HBCU, and when a white student saw a point I was making about compound interest and student debt, that was such a pleasing moment for me as a teacher, I told it to a Fox Business reporter.

That is, I thought it was a false charge until I saw the reaction of the students at the historically black Bethune-Cookman College─hereafter dubbed “Beffune” students─to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

I found it hard to watch─and I saw the “Spice Girls” movie in full. It was embarrassing to see the students jeering and turning their backs on an invited guest who had done them no harm. The president of the college had to scold them as if they were in kindergarten.

align=”right” I wonder if the shouting students could name any policies of Mrs. DeVos that warranted such behavior. Is it that she attended private schools? So did President Obama’s children. As for the public schools that Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, once ran in Chicago, every few weeks one hears of a shooting, brawl, or sadistic torture scene captured on Facebook Live.

True, Mrs. DeVos supports school choice, but so does Senator Cory Booker; yet, if that slightly beige, pedicured senator had been the speaker, the students would have been lining up to take photographs with him.

My own HBCU has invited former Vice Presidential plagiarist Joe Biden to speak. His academic dishonesty and his low class rank while in law school─76th out of 85─make him a curious choice for a university commencement speaker, but I wonder if our debt-laden students will turn their back on the man who, in 2005, voted to change the bankruptcy laws.  The changes made it almost impossible to get a clean slate.  (The change rewarded all the national banking constituents in Delaware, his real masters.)

No protestors ever attacked the car of an Obama cabinet member, as happened earlier in the year when DeVos visited a school. The real “fascists” have revealed themselves.

I wonder if the shouting students could name any policies of Mrs. DeVos that warranted such behavior. Is it that she attended private schools? So did President Obama’s children. As for the public schools that Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, once ran in Chicago, every few weeks one hears of a shooting, brawl, or sadistic torture scene captured on Facebook Live.

I am guessing that none of those Beffune slacktivists would lift a finger to stop a real instance of racism. I had to flee my previous institution, the predominately white Vanderbilt University, where Klan-supporting terrorists were telling me, “I hope you are killed in the most violent, bloody way possible…,” beginning a 10-year odyssey that took me to MIT, Harvard, Stanford University, and Caltech before I found safe harbor at Baltimore’s historically black college, Morgan State University. (Yes, this happened in the 21st century.) But whenever I asked black American student groups to help, I heard crickets.

These Beffune students, unless they were especially precocious, only have known an America with a half-black president, one where the racial climate has improved so much that we can put “1776-2008” on the gravestone of American Racism.  Kellyanne Conway, a gracious, conservative white woman, and counselor to President Trump, now is perfectly at ease in the company of black university presidents.

The Trump those infants call a “white supremacist” went out of his way to talk about his plan for rebuilding urban America─black America. Whether or not Trump had heard much about Frederick Douglass before 2017, whether or not DeVos’s staffers know how to spell “DuBois” matters less than what Trump and DeVos are doing, putting money where their mouths are. I was elated at President Trump’s meeting with the presidents of HBCUs. DeVos even met with an HBCU president her second day in office.

The reaction from African-American “adults” has been baffling.

On Facebook you can read warnings of a Trojan Horse. Go to HBCU Digest, and you’ll see comments like “Something wicked this way comes. We have to be very careful when we get into bed with the devil….” “I don’t trust him or his intentions.” Some even interpreted Trump’s order to “just get it [legislation to help HBCUs] done” as “sounds like hurry up and get them out of my house.

Have they all been drinking the water in Flint, Michigan since birth? The Beffune barbarians may have just staged the costliest protest in their university’s history. Trump doesn’t need a single black vote.  African-Americans have no political power that I can see to impose their will upon the governing party.  Trump could defund HBCUs tomorrow and the Supreme Court would rubber-stamp his decision with all deliberate speed. Mrs. DeVos would have to be as forgiving as the blacks who voted for George Wallace to want to go to another HBCU.

It’s always sensible to be wary of a good deal, but I wish black voters were this savvy when Democratic politicians come to their neighborhoods and disappear after the election for four years. While the Washington Post reported in 2015 that “[h]istorically black schools say Obama’s policies have fallen short,” blacks themselves as a rule were Obama’s biggest cheerleaders. Meanwhile, many cash-strapped HBCUs were actually angry when the Koch brothers donated $25 million to the United Negro College Fund.

Give the Kochs and DeVos a chance. Because of the Republicans’ olive branch, I’m personally willing to tutor Kellyanne Conway’s kids in math.

After all, it’s clear what Trump is getting out of the HBCU partnership: goodwill from enough blacks to weaken his Democratic opposition.

Works for me.

Democrats have lost their way. The cities they have led for decades, and the school systems within them, have failed. As President Trump said, they offer nothing but carnage and failure. Of course, the Democrats counsel patience, so their leaders can preserve their riches, preserve their chokehold on urban residents, and condemn those children to illiteracy, joblessness, and homelessness.

What solutions does Chicago native (via Indonesia) Barack Obama have for Chicago? Why won’t he move there at once to stop the carnage?

Betsy DeVos has the answers, and they are simple. That does not mean they are easy–each new generation must find the courage to fight.

If a school is defective, shut it down. Give parents the choice, the opportunity to give their children the American dream. I am pretty sure that even with vouchers, private schools will simply increase their tuitions to keep out teens like the one who threw the 68 year-old woman into the pool, but the status quo is unacceptable.

Let ambitious parents send their children to better schools today.  “Some day” is too late.

Praise hard work, dedication and discipline.  Praise modesty, kindness and decorum. Punish wrongdoers.

Give DeVos a chance. I think she has a true understanding of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, often called the “Negro National Anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry ‘DeVos’ and Sing.” I am certain Booker T. Washington, once a slave, later the founder of Tuskegee University, would rush to embrace her.

We should all do the same. 

***A version of this essay appeared in The Baltimore Sun newspaper.


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About Jonathan David Farley

Dr. Jonathan David Farley was named one of Ebony's “30 Leaders of the Future” and was the Harvard Foundation’s Scientist of the Year in 2004. Seed magazine named him one of “15 people who have shaped the global conversation about science in 2005.” He has written for the New York Times, Time, and The Guardian.