Ben Carson, the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, believes that enslaved Africans were immigrants who came to this country dreaming a better world for their progeny as they "worked even harder, even longer for less" than some other immigrants. His colleague over in the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, sees black institutions of higher learning as pioneers in the school choice movement rather than what they are: heroic examples of making a way out of no way when governmental authorities denied blacks access to educational resources available to whites.
So with nuts, neophytes and revisionists running the Trump asylum, one might wonder why 70 or so presidents, chancellors and advocates for historically black colleges and universities — HBCUs — accepted a "getting-to-know-you" White House invitation. The president had promised to "do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before." So, gingerly suspending doubts, they, like the educator Booker T. Washington more than a century before, sought seats at the table of power to bring resources to the people they serve: the students and the communities from which those students hail.
Prior to making the trek, David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, where I am a tenured professor, told our community: "I view this as an opportunity for HBCUs to be a part of an initial dialogue to propose a substantive agenda for our institutions that will call on the president and Congress to invest billions of dollars in a group of colleges and universities that I think are among the most consequential that have dotted the American higher education landscape."
In 1901, blacks were thrilled that Washington had been invited to dine with President Roosevelt, whom he served as an informal advisor — the "spokesman" for his people, as it were. Scott Joplin even wrote an opera about it, "A Guest of Honor." But another bit of music carried the day for outraged white folks: a song called "N…..s in the White House," which decried mixing of the races in a social setting and found new fame in 1929 after First Lady Lou Hoover invited Jessie DePriest, the wife of the only black member of Congress, to tea.
In those days, the optics of a White House visit were enough for many blacks. But times have changed, even if President Trump and his crew have not gotten that far in their CliffsNotes on blackness under the tutelage of Mr. Carson and Omarosa Manigault, a senior liaison to blacks.
This time around a whole lot of black folks went nuts seeing Kellyanne Conway, another Trump adviser, casually sitting with her feet on a couch in the Oval Office and fiddling with a cell phone as dozens of dignified educators surrounded the president at his desk. Though she later apologized, the photo seemed to convey what we now know to be true: This gathering of educators was more about obtaining the right photo than about sustaining HBCUs, which have made, as the White House notes, "extraordinary contributions to the general welfare and prosperity of our country." What had been billed as "a listening session" with Trump administration officials on Feb. 27 became instead a rushed 15 minutes squeezed in after the educators were shuttled back and forth between the executive office building and the White House for the presidential meet-and-greet.
Some of them stuck around the next day for the signing of a much-ballyhooed executive order on the "White House Initiative to Promote Excellence and Innovation at Historically Black Colleges and Universities," an act undertaken by every president since Jimmy Carter. The only thing of substance it contains, if you can call it that, is a shift in responsibility for the initiative from Ms. DeVos' office to the White House.
There is time for President Trump to recover from this missed opportunity. I offer two words. Aretha Franklin spelled out one of them: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Do unto us in all your dealings as you would do unto those for whom you really give a damn.
The second comes from my church world. Preachers from the days of the messianic Father Divine to the present sometimes urge congregants to turn Sunday morning piety into something a bit more tangible, more green, when the offering plate comes around. They call it "tangibilitating." Mr. Trump and his team must now "tangibilitate" their professed admiration for HBCUs, including Morgan, Howard and Morehouse, which are all marking 150 years of transforming America.