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Payback Time: Katrina and the Nation’s Obligation to Black Colleges

By Tom Watson on February 2, 2006No Comment
ConversationPayback Time: Katrina and the Nation’s Obligation to Black Colleges

In spite of all its furious destruction, Hurricane Katrina may be remembered more for tearing down the myth of American racial equality than for tearing down homes and businesses. Unfortunately, while there has already been debate over how to rebuild the physical structures lost to the storm, there has been little discussion about how to bridge the racial rift.

One of the most effective and least costly ways to rectify past injustices would be to support our nation’s black colleges financially. Giving to black colleges now will help repair not only the physical damage done by the hurricane but also the historical damage inflicted over the past century.

Although founded and funded on an unequal basis, black colleges have shown remarkable resilience, continuing to enroll a substantial share of African Americans who receive a college education. In most cities across the country, black colleges were sited on undesirable land—a situation amply demonstrated in New Orleans, where Xavier, Dillard, and Southern universities were built on the lowest ground, thereby suffering the greatest damage when the levees broke. Likewise, over the course of their existence, these institutions had fewer resources than did their historically white counterparts. For example, many white philanthropists and state governments historically gave less to black education, believing black colleges cost less to maintain than did white institutions. Despite these circumstances, black colleges, especially those in New Orleans, have educated a distinguished slate of elected leaders, doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, and college professors.

According to the American Medical Association, Xavier University of New Orleans, established in 1915, is responsible for placing more African Americans in medical school than any other institution in America. This institution alone is changing the landscape of the medical professions, producing many future doctors and pharmacists committed to working in low-income urban and rural areas. With an enrollment of only 4,000, Xavier awards more undergraduate degrees in biology and the life sciences to African Americans than any other college or university.
Dillard University, founded in 1869, provides a large percentage of New Orleans’ nurses and, like its historically black counterparts across the country, has long been an entry point to the middle class for its graduates. Moreover, Dillard, ranked among the top 15 Southern comprehensive colleges by U.S. News and World Report, educated one of the Ivy League’s most prominent presidents, Brown University’s Ruth Simmons.
Southern University, an open admission institution, serves low-income students determined to move themselves out of poverty. The institution has a profound commitment to community service and places its graduates in social service positions throughout the U.S. and abroad. Given the contributions of these three institutions, it is not economically sound to abandon them during this time of need.
Some white Americans may wonder whether black Americans are themselves helping black colleges. The answer is a resounding yes! Although conventional wisdom says that African Americans don’t give, statistics show that they do and often more generously than whites. According to a recent survey conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, African Americans give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charity than does the general population. In the case of Hurricane Katrina relief, African Americans are giving to mainstream charities such as the Red Cross as well as to African American service organizations and churches. Many also give to individual black colleges and the United Negro College Fund.
However, the contributions of African Americans are not enough to meet the dire needs of New Orleans’ black colleges-needs worsened by historical discrimination and shortsighted Federal decision-making. For example, Congress, through the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, excluded private colleges from FEMA’s flood aid program. That decision has left Xavier and Dillard (both private universities) with little to no support for rebuilding infrastructure after Katrina. Nearly five months after Katrina the six major institutions of higher education in New Orleans have over half-a-billion dollars in damages.   The three historically black colleges were hit the hardest in damages and lack of returning students as classes reopen after a semester hiatus. Tulane, a predominantly white university announced that 88% of its students returned compared to Xavier at 75%, Dillard at 50% and Southern at 44%. In addition to low returns of students, both Dillard and Southern University are not able to open their campuses, rather they are teaching from hotels and a middle school, respectively. If these Black colleges are to survive, they need deeper pockets.

The simple fact is that the majority of the wealth in the United States is controlled by whites. If black colleges typically have small endowments, it is because their alumni do not have the same access to wealth as the white middle class. According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the median net worth (i.e., savings and capital assets) in 2002 for black households was $5,988. For whites, that figure was $88,651, 10 times higher. Quite simply, this means that black families alone lack the means to put these institutions on stable financial footing. Black colleges need the assistance of whites in order to flourish, and we have an obligation to support them.
White Americans benefit from black colleges. These institutions have not only produced individuals who have excelled in the arts, sciences, law, medicine, music, and sports, but they continue to graduate educated citizens who contribute to our economy and to the fundamental values of our nation. For centuries, African Americans have served our country, providing both paid and unpaid labor. It is time for us to pay back our debt to African Americans and we can do so, in part, by supporting black colleges, those ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and those in our own state and local communities.

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