Where’s the DEI at the HBCUs?

April 17, 2023

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published on April 12, 2023 in City Journal.

The lack of diversity policies at Historically Black Colleges and Universities makes clear that the concept means something other than its public definition.

It’s a curious feature of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that they rarely have any diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) administrators or policies on their campuses, beyond what federal law requires.

Howard University, for instance, the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris, has no central administrator dedicated to DEI, and its student affairs programming aims to help the disabled and LGBTQ students. Neither Jackson State nor Grambling State, two famous HBCUs, have DEI plans or central administrators. North Carolina’s four public HBCUs also have very little DEI presence on campus. Much the same is true of Texas’s HBCUs, none of which has DEI deans at the college level and almost none of which has DEI in its college strategic plans. Tennessee State has less DEI than any four-year university in the Volunteer State. One could go on.

The lack of DEI at HBCUs may seem surprising in light of what we are commonly told about the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity, we are told, means “the presence of differences in a different setting.” Differences of race, gender, religion, and so on “enrich our workplace” and make for a great national strength—in fact, our greatest strength, per President Biden. Equity, we are informed, is about providing all people with opportunities to grow, as is demonstrated when an institution “looks like America” by mirroring its demographics. Inclusion, it is said, involves “welcoming all people regardless of race, ethnicity, sex” and so on, by showing that “everyone is valued, respected and able to reach their full potential.”

Of course, HBCUs hardly “look like America.” At least 75 percent of students at these schools are black (at some HBCUs, the numbers exceed 90 percent), though only 13 percent of Americans are. Only 8 percent of students at HBCUs are white, 2 percent are Latino, and 1 percent are Asian—figures well out of proportion to their percentage in the population at large. Much the same is true of faculty. Nationwide, HBCU faculty is 56 percent black, but only 2.5 percent Hispanic, 0.7 percent indigenous, and 24 percent white—again, well out of proportion with their presence in the population at large. Furthermore, HBCUs are more female-dominated than campuses across the country. More than two-thirds of all degrees at HBCUs are conferred on female students.

Given the importance of diversity to excellence (as we are told), it would seem like HBCUs are suffering badly from a critical lack of it. But HBCUs do not act like they lack diversity, equity, or inclusion, or that they need to act rapidly to make their campuses “look like America.” Quite the contrary.

Yet these institutions are not hypocritical. Their lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion demonstrates that advocates of DEI mean something other than their publicly stated goals.

Equity is said to mean equality of outcome. But concerns about equity flow in one direction only. University activists demand equity only when they want more blacks in the student body or on the faculty, or more female students or faculty members. No one demands that Texas Southern, one of the nation’s largest HBCUs, admit more whites, though its student body is more than 90 percent black. Fewer than 30 percent of engineering students nationwide are females, so programs exist to promote women in STEM. Fewer than 25 percent of education students are males—but no programs exist to motivate men to become teachers. Fewer than 30 percent of nursing students are men, but again, we see little effort made to get more male nurses. About 60 percent of college students are females, but this imbalance is not seen as a crisis, even as it is widely acknowledged that many men are failing to prosper.

Diversity is the lodestar of our new morality. Yet diversity does not mean having lots of difference in different settings. The really existing definition of “diversity” is “fewer whites and males.” Engineering has a diversity problem because it has too many whites, Asians, and males. Majority-white campuses have diversity problems. Those problems must be fixed. Nursing schools and HBCUs, by contrast, do not have diversity problems. Diversity means privileging the supposedly marginalized and marginalizing the supposedly privileged.

Inclusion means designing the environment to support diversity. On this score, renaming buildings, removing statues, and hate-speech codes are “inclusive,” as long as the right buildings, statues, and speech are excluded. Curricula celebrating the achievements of HBCUs or black inventors is “inclusive.” The SAT and the grading system promote exclusion.

HBCUs are not expected to have a DEI apparatus because these institutions already embody the true spirit of DEI. Concern for equity, always a ruse, is simply ignored. HBCUs achieve real diversity by packing campuses with minorities, training them to approach American society with an attitude of grievance, and excluding white males and wrong-thinkers from campus. They are “inclusive” because blacks run them and attend them in great numbers. They could only be more inclusive if fewer whites, Asians, and Hispanics attended.

DEI advocates have infused old words with new meanings. DEI opponents get cowed into silence and confusion in the face of intrepid and dishonest rebranding. Perhaps it’s time to abandon these words so that we can see and think clearly about our future as Americans.