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Show that black lives matter by funding Maryland’s HBCUs | COMMENTARY

Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones addressed the crowd earlier this year at a rally in support of court ordered funding of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in Annapolis.
Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones addressed the crowd earlier this year at a rally in support of court ordered funding of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in Annapolis. (Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette)

Cascading demands for racial justice and equal rights unleashed by the murder of George Floyd led Maryland’s Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford to assert, in a June 3, Washington Post article, that America has reached “a turning point” in addressing racism and inequality in all American institutions.

In his own state, this must include vindicating the constitutional rights of students at the state’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that suffer academic disparities described by Judge Catherine C. Blake as “worse than Mississippi of the 1970s.”

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For the past 14 years, HBCU students, faculty and alumni have marched, protested and litigated for justice and equality. Six years ago, Judge Blake ruled against the state, noting that “Maryland had a shameful history of de jure segregation throughout much of the past century. Public higher education opportunities for African Americans were either non-existent or decidedly inferior to the opportunities afforded to white citizens.”

Indeed, the state’s own documents show that it deliberately set up its four black schools to be “inferior in every aspect of their operation.” And as the court noted, Maryland’s own reports show that “the contrast between the amounts of money received by the two racial groups would show, if possible of computation, an enormous differential in favor of the white race.”

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Three years ago, Judge Blake ordered the state to provide additional funding for expanded academic programs, scholarships, marketing and financial aid. But the governor failed to fund the court’s remedial order, and students, faculty and alumni continued to march, protest and litigate. Judges on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals encouraged the legislature to resolve the case.

And they stepped in. Under the leadership of the state’s first African American Speaker, Adrienne Jones, the legislature overwhelmingly passed an HBCU Equity Bill (129-2 in the House 47-0 in the Senate) that would have appropriated out of the state’s $47.9 billion budget, $57.7 million a year for ten years.

Legislators expressed hope that the governor would see the connection between racial disparities in the state and weak support for HBCUs. Said Senate Sponsor Charles Sydnor: “Our HBCU bill will provide critical resources to our HBCU pre-med programs, as well as Morgan’s public health program, Coppin’s and Bowie’s nursing programs and the pharmacy and other health-related fields at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. All of these academic programs are critically important to addressing the underlying health disparities laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Similarly, legislators recognized that properly funded black colleges can help address the wealth and income disparities in Maryland by spurring economic development in the communities in which they are located, since, as a United Negro College Fund report notes, every dollar in initial spending by Maryland’s HBCUs generates $1.52 in initial and successive spending in their communities.

But despite the court order and legislative support, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the HBCU Equity Bill, even while allowing millions to expand thoroughbred racing. A spokesman for the racing industry proclaimed: “This is truly a defining moment in the history of the Maryland thoroughbred racing industry and the state.” Maybe.

The real “defining moment” is the quest for justice and equality for black people and black institutions. Even before the murder of George Floyd and the quest for racial justice was unleashed, the Maryland legislature recognized that funding the court ordered remedy would remove the stain of being “worse than Mississippi”, help address racial health and wealth disparities in the state and promote economic development in black communities — a true win-win.

An economic downturn that disproportionately hurts black communities is precisely the time to help black colleges out of the hole the state dug. Instead, the governor cut the lifeline extended by the legislators. Even Mississippi recognized that economic downturns are no excuse for ducking constitutional responsibilities. It began its larger HBCU settlement payments during the 2001 recession, and continued them during the Great Recession of 2008-09.

The legislature should continue to stay on the right side of history by overriding the governor’s veto. The time for lip service is past. And 14 years of marching, protesting and litigating is enough. It is time to provide justice for Maryland’s HBCUs, to show that: #BlackLivesMatter.

Michael D. Jones (Michael.jones@kirkland.com) is partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and executivecommittee member of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; David Burton (dburton@dmsca.us) is president for the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education; Earl Richardson (Earl-Richardson@comcast.net) is president emeritus and distinguished professor and research associate at Morgan State University.

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