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Historically Black Colleges' Future Questioned - 2003-02-15

Last month, President Bush generated controversy when he formally endorsed a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate affirmative action from the admissions process at state-run universities. Under affirmative action, minority applicants are given special consideration, in an effort to increase racial diversity at predominately white schools.

Most U.S. colleges are predominately white, but at 105 schools, the population is mostly black. They're known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and they were founded at a time when blacks were not allowed to attend state-run colleges in the South. Now that segregation policies are a thing of the past, some educators are questioning the purpose of historically black colleges.

Alex Dixon, 22, is a finance major at Howard's School of Business. He'll be graduating in May and moving to New York, where he already has a job lined up at the global investment firm, Goldman-Sachs. Mr. Dixon is black, but he was raised in a predominately white suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada. He says growing up, most of his friends were white. But when he and his parents came to Washington, D.C., in 1998 to look at colleges, Alex Dixon says he knew it was time for a change.

"We came to Howard on a nice, Friday afternoon and got off the bus right in front of the School of Business," he says. "And I saw just streams of young, black men walking in suits. In the School of B we have to wear suits on Tuesdays, sometimes Thursdays. And just to see all these black men in braids and looking clean cut, and just so many different types. It was very positive."

Alex Dixon says throughout his years at Howard, he's remained close to his white friends from home. But he also says being at a historically black university has given him a greater understanding of what it means to be African-American. He says the image of black men put out by the American media tends to be negative, focusing on issues like poverty and crime. He also says that image presents black culture as a monolith, and his experience at Howard has made him realize the African-American community is more diverse than he ever imagined.

"When I graduated from high school, I thought that all black people kind of had all the same political ideas, all the same aspirations, listened to pretty much the same music," he says. "But once I got here, I began to understand just the full breadth and depth of people of African descent. And that blackness is not defined by any one set of cultural norms. You cannot stigmatize a person and say, 'Oh, this person's a Republican. Therefore they're not black.'"

The idea that there's diversity within "blackness" is something officials at historically black colleges stress. And according to 21-year-old Marianna Ofosu, the strong, international presence on Howard's campus reinforces that message. Ms. Ofosu is a black woman who was born in Poland and moved to America when she was 12. She says it's important for blacks in the United States to realize the words "African" and "American" don't always go hand-in-hand. She says being at Howard has taught her that all black people in the world are connected by something scholars call the "African Diaspora", that is, the scattering of blacks to places far and wide, at the hands of imperialism.

"When you have the reference point only of the American continent, your reference points are American slavery, American civil rights movement," she says. "When you begin to look at yourself as a member of the African Diaspora, your reference points become negritude, Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, William Blyden. Which I think is important, because you begin to look at your people as a people of multiplicity."

Of course, Marianna Ofosu didn't hear about Senegal's first president, Leopold Senghor, just from her peers. She learned about him in the classes she took at Howard, and according to 21-year-old Olu Burrell, that's something else that's valuable about the black college experience. Mr. Burrell is an English major. He says he studied Chaucer and Shakespeare and all the other European authors you'd expect to find in an English curriculum. But he says he was also required to read black authors like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison.

"When I came here to Howard, I knew that I was going to learn about 'the dead white men of English society.' At the same time, I was rounded out, because I learned about black authors who have made their contributions to the literary world," he says.

It should be noted that Howard University is considered to be one of the best historically black colleges in the country, in part because it enjoys a good deal of financial support from alumni.

In the 1940s, 90 percent of black college students went to a historically black school. Now, because of desegregation, most go elsewhere and the 105 historically black colleges are responsible for just 14 percent of all black college graduates. That's meant some schools have run into financial trouble, and recently, Morris Brown College in Atlanta actually lost its accreditation.

But President Bush has made a commitment to increase federal funding for these schools, because he says they offer "exciting opportunities" to African-Americans. One of those opportunities seems to involve the consideration of graduate study. Nearly half of the African-American graduate students in this country did their undergraduate work at a historically black college.