The GOP’s Long History With Black Colleges

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tags: GOP, Trump, Black Colleges



Theodore R. Johnson is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at New America and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Leah Wright Rigueur is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.

Republicans and HBCU presidents have a long history. More than 100 years ago, a black man dined socially at the White House for the first time when Booker T. Washington, the president of Tuskegee Institute, visited Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Washington’s position on race—preferring to prioritize black self-improvement and economic development over demands for immediate and full equality—made him agreeable to Roosevelt. But it was Washington’s political influence among some white Southerners that caused the president to violate an established social norm. The dinner, which became a national scandal, occurred because Roosevelt sought Washington’s help in identifying potential political appointments and laying the groundwork for his 1904 campaign. And with the president’s ear, Washington had a direct line to the White House and national standing that led to philanthropic investments in his education programs.

Today’s Republican Party, however, is quite different than Roosevelt’s, having been ushered into its current era of politics by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. But the relationship’s DNA remains fundamentally unchanged.

President Richard Nixon built his political approach to black America around notions of black capitalism and self-empowerment, which New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller called a “stroke of political genius.” Supporting black business and HBCUs gave Nixon a message to appeal to white moderates and a counternarrative to Democrats who were hitting him hard on his “Southern strategy” tactics, like opposing school desegregation and busing, to win over socially conservative white voters. Ever the political schemer, Nixon pursued duplicitous tactics, like packaging an increase in HBCU funding into Republican legislation that cut education spending overall. In this way, when congressional Democrats voted against Nixon’s measure, he could accuse them of hypocrisy and chastise them for not supporting black colleges.

But black colleges realized actual gains under Nixon. In 1969, Bob Brown—a member of Nixon’s Black Cabinet, a small group of black Republican appointees who pushed an agenda aimed at middle-class African-Americans—noted that black colleges received only 3 percent of the $4 billion allocated annually to higher education. He arranged for Nixon to meet with more than a dozen black college presidents, and the session resulted in Nixon promising more than $100 million in federal funds for black colleges, with an additional $30 million being allocated the following year. In all, due to such increased funding, black Republican appointees were largely responsible for driving more than $1 billion to black schools over the next decade. ...




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