The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, moved a nation to confront the legacy of slavery, the consequences of legalized segregation and the devastation of racial inequality - including educational inequality. His abiding legacy provides a challenging context for the recent debate over the proper role of historically black colleges and universities in American higher education.
Some argue that historically black colleges and universities are unnecessary and ineffective. After all, in the decades since Dr. King's assassination, black Americans have gained greater access to colleges and universities. Moreover, black students at majority-white institutions appear to have better graduation rates than at some historically black colleges, and many people, including some black students, believe that historically black colleges are not academically rigorous.
Almost 40 years after Dr. King's death, and with the serious challenges facing historically black colleges and universities today, some citizens and legislators may conclude that significant investment in supporting and improving historically black universities in Maryland and elsewhere is no longer appropriate.
Such a conclusion, however, would be mistaken. The value and mission of historically black colleges and universities should not be judged from the conditions that produced them, but rather from the crucial role they still play in reducing racial inequality and in meeting educational, business and leadership needs within and beyond Maryland.
Historically black colleges and universities provide opportunity for those who have been underserved by public education systems and by their communities, and a community where one can learn about and with those who exemplify the highest ideals of education. They perform this dual mission in a way that is simply not possible by relying on a combination of community colleges and traditional, majority-white institutions.
This mission is necessary because far too many predominantly black communities remain isolated from opportunity as a result of poverty - and poverty affects blacks and whites differently. According to the Russell Sage Foundation, fewer than 1 percent of white children are poor for 10 years or more, but 29 percent of black children experience such long-term poverty. One in three poor black children is still poor at ages 25 to 27, but the rate is one in 14 for poor white children.
Often, great black minds go unnourished and undeveloped within the schools found in these communities. And there are still powerful public forces, most notably within the criminal punishment system and the housing market, that isolate many black families and exacerbate racial inequality.
While our nation has done much to reject the legacy of slavery, segregation and racism, stigma remains a powerful force restricting opportunity in ways that potentially affect all black people.
Despite achievements by blacks in all fields, the violence, crime and unemployment that occur in some predominantly black neighborhoods continue to color the perception of all blacks by many others.
Given these realities, historically black colleges and universities are vital public institutions for creating counter-forces of opportunity and for challenging stigmatization with examples of student and faculty achievement.
Advancing both of these objectives is no easy task. Often, the students from underserved communities most capable of taking advantage of what historically black colleges and universities have to offer simply cannot afford to attend them without significant financial aid. Recruiting and retaining the faculty who can best achieve excellence in education and scholarship are difficult when these faculty members have greater teaching loads and fewer resources than their counterparts at majority-white institutions.
Because of the shortcomings of the public education many black students receive, it is not possible to know which students will thrive at historically black colleges and universities. But a commitment to access for the underserved requires a willingness to take risks that are not taken at less-open institutions.
Given this context, graduation rates do not provide meaningful comparisons. Selectivity also fails to correlate to academic rigor.
Now is the time to rally to the cause of historically black colleges and universities - not to question their necessity. Now is the time to respond to the unique challenges facing historically black colleges and universities, not to exacerbate their difficulties by reducing or withholding support.
Joe Pettit is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at Morgan State University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.