WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23: Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick introduces introduces United States Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III during an announcement that Howard University has been awarded $90 million in funding for a University Affiliated Research Center Consortium at Founder’s Library at Howard University on Monday January 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Black Universities, White Power: Howard Covers For Imperialism

The crisis of identity reductionism has led to the overwhelming placement of Africans in positions to serve empire and double down on patriotism. Most recently, Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA, hosted U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, and U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall who awarded the university with a $90 million contract to serve as the 15th University Affiliated Research Center (UARC). The cultural and social significance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) dominates almost all aspects of conversations centered on Black schools.  The UARC award will enable Howard to lead a consortium of HBCUs in creating a pipeline for students from elementary to post-graduate education with the UARC infrastructure, the university arm of the Department of Defense.

HBCUs tied directly to the U.S. empire’s dedication to expanding its hegemony are often drowned out by elusive ideas of representation, “space” and elusive depictions of “culture.” With an emphasis on STEM superseding all other programs, the school-to-military-industrial complex pipeline has been fast-tracked. Investments in engineering alongside scholarships with an emphasis on “Blacks in Tech” have been influenced by defense contractors such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. There’s also been an emphasis on soft power roping Black students into being used as counterrevolutionary tools with USAID programs and lobby opportunities with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at HBCUs.  

The space that HBCUs provide for Black students is undeniably invaluable. However, the history of how these spaces have come to be and their use of them has become more convoluted as time goes on. The mythology around HBCUs as “safe spaces for Black students” has served to deny the history of, oftentimes violent, struggle for control of these institutions. Struggles against tying Black people to this God-forsaken country more and more each day. The mythology is nothing short of psychological warfare. 

More Africans are placed in high positions within the empire, as the narrative of progress served to confuse the masses of Black people. As the U.S. continues its foreign policy of never-ending-war foreign policy, we have a Black  Secretary of Defense and Ambassador to the United Nations to help dress up imperial atrocities. It cannot be overstated that domestic and global imperialism are counterparts. It is not only evident in the militarization of local police departments, but food deserts and austerity policies, and the political and social limitations within Black communities also indicate the internal colonial struggle Black people are faced with.  This is true for multiple cities being led by “Black firsts” who were educated in these very HBCUs, “our institutions,” carrying out white supremacist terror in the U.S. and abroad. 

In a recent conversation with Dr. Jared Ball on Black Power Media in his latest book Of Black Study, Josh Myers notes “… These spaces come out of particular conditions. In fact, it reveals the university as a construct really created in order to discipline Black life. So the contradictions that we think exist between the university, like Howard or any HBCU, where Black excellence gets framed or prioritized over Black liberation may not be so much a contradiction because these universities aren’t really concerned about our liberation.”

HBCUs are embedded within Black communities and expanding outward, creating hubs of University Cities contributing to gentrification and displacement. This makes it all the more important not to concede to the state’s use of HBCUs. Legacies of Black resistance, from the fight for Black Studies to student protests against wars that drove the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) off of campuses, offer a blueprint to use HBCUs as a site of struggle. In  2017, the chant, “Get Out James Comey! You ain’t our homie!” carried the HU Resist student protest against Howard University’s attempts to provide a job for former FBI Director, James Comey. In spite of calling out these insidious connections, the relationship between the state and its HBCUs has deepened. The mainstream media frenzy over anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) laws has not led to any real interrogation about political power or community control of education. We have no control over our histories, we have no control over our cultures, and we have no control over our children. As HBCU collusion with the state is showing us, the discussion is mostly posturing that creates disillusionment. Without serious efforts towards building political power through organization and reeducation, there will be more of these erroneous and violent actions being praised as advancements.

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.