Every year, the president presents his version of what was accomplished the prior year and a vision for the country in the coming year. As is customary, White House staff invites a small group of select Americans to join the first lady as her husband addresses Congress. NPR described the significance of the guest list in its coverage of last year’s speech: “Just like the issues and themes that color the annual State of the Union speech, the list of White House invitees is intended to send a message about what an administration cares about and prioritizes.” As I listened to President Obama’s final State of the Union (SOTU) Address Tuesday night, I could not help but be saddened by the possibility that this administration may not care about or prioritize black colleges – that black colleges may not matter.
In the last seven years of SOTU addresses, there has not been one student from an historically black college or university (HBCU) invited to be a guest in the first lady’s viewing box. The students who were lucky enough to be chosen have represented STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] high schools, community/technical colleges, and majority, non-HBCU four-year universities.
No guest whose college is mentioned in biographies listed on www.whitehouse.gov attended an HBCU. And not one of the first lady’s African American guests has been noted as an HBCU graduate. And just to satisfy the “fact-checkers” who will undoubtedly work hard to challenge this piece, let me acknowledge that 2014 SOTU guest Tyrone Davis worked as an environmental fellow with the Environmental Defense Fund at Elizabeth City State University (an HBCU), but he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from North Carolina State University and was attending law school at Elon University when a guest of the first lady.
To be clear, I am not attempting to denigrate any past individual SOTU guests; they are all fine representatives of our country and principles. The issue is whether our president recognizes the contributions of black colleges and their graduates. It does not seem to matter that a large group of historically underfunded and poorly treated schools, representing just 3 percent of America’s colleges, produces a whopping 50 percent of black lawyers, 40 percent of black engineers, and the majority of black public school teachers. And with an average tuition of less than $8,000 per year, publicly supported black colleges are a key solution to reducing the cost of college for most Americans and thereby reducing the amount of student loan debt American college students and their families have to assume. With these facts, there’s no question black colleges deserve a seat in the first lady’s box.
As the president spoke to cement his legacy, there was scant reference to a constituency he courted intensely to keep his job. Headlines in 2012 across black media announced, “Obama campaign focuses on black vote, targets HBCUs,” as his campaign coordinated over 40 visits to HBCU campuses. Extensive voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts helped black voter turnout surpass white turnout for the first time in history. In short, when the president needed to reach his base, black colleges responded.
So as I reflected on the four big questions President Obama posed for the next president during his SOTU address, I thought of one for him: Do black colleges matter?
Source: Washington Post
Click through to the Washington Post to read and exchange that President Obama had with a college student in Baton Rouge, La. that considers the viewpoints in this piece.