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A Black History Lesson for the Ages

President Donald Trump meets with leaders of historically black colleges and universities in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, February 27, 2017.

Black History Month drew to a close this week, and I’m guessing the White House is relieved. After all, the month that is reserved to celebrate African Americans began with President Donald Trump boasting his abject ignorance about the mortality of Frederick Douglass. Then, this week, the observances concluded with his education secretary revealing her lack of knowledge about the history of black colleges.

Secretary Betsy DeVos, whom the Senate barely approved to lead the U.S. Department of Education, let the nation know that she has no understanding of the role or significance of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. In a statement released after a Monday meeting with an audience of black college and university presidents, DeVos suggested the colleges were created to give black students “choice” in their educational options, seemingly linking the founding of HBCUs to the administration’s efforts to promote federal support for private, charter, and religious schools as alternatives to public education. DeVos wrote:

HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.

This is verifiably untrue. The often-told and well-known origin story of the nation’s black colleges and universities dates to the end of slavery, when black Americans were rebuffed from attending white schools. Indeed, in many Confederate states, it was illegal under slavery to allow blacks to learn to read. After the Civil War, black preachers and white philanthropists built colleges—most were glorified grammar and high schools—across the South to educate newly freed slaves. The schools, some 100 or so still graduating students to this day, may have started in church basements or abandoned buildings but now are now proud institutions that have produced black engineers, doctors, lawyers, and educators who have long contributed to building this nation.

Of course, DeVos didn’t know this. She doesn’t have a clue about race, education, or history, let alone putting it all together into a coherent understanding of the historic struggle of black Americans’ quest for education. Rather, she seized the meeting with the HBCU presidents as an opportunity to score brownie points with an equally unknowing White House.

Predictably, her comments drew withering ridicule, so a day after uttering what should never have been said in the first place, DeVos refined her opinion of HBCUs. Speaking at a luncheon for the HBCU presidents at the Library of Congress, she acknowledged in prepared remarks released by her office and quoted in The New York Times that white racism played a part in the creation of their institutions: “But your history was born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.”

Still, her mulligan came up short, adding yet another choice argument in her backpedal on the earlier statement. “Bucking that status quo, and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs,” she said at the luncheon.

No! HBCUs were not a choice; there was no “alternative option” to attending schools that refused to allow them to enter. Marybeth Gasman, who directs the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Huffington Post that DeVos’ statements were “completely ahistorical,” representing “a whitewashing of HBCU history. … African-Americans did not have a choice when black colleges were established―that was the only thing they could do.”

All this seems par for the course inside a Trump administration that can’t seem to avoid doing or saying the wrong thing, no matter the issue or how desperately it tries to sound presidential. Indeed, this week—the last of Black History Month—the White House invited the black HBCU presidents to Washington, putatively to listen to their concerns and as the prelude to an executive order that the presidents hoped would profit them with tangible financial support for their schools.

This point bears a bit of elaboration. During the Obama administration, many HBCU supporters expressed frustration that the former president never invited them to the Oval Office and complained that his administration’s policies made their financial situations more perilous. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama invested more than $4 billion in HBCUs over seven years, according to a U.S. Department of Education HBCU fact sheet released in October 2016.

President Trump sought to exploit HBCU presidents, using them as the cutting edge of a wedge issue. The idea was to cleave some restless support from among black college and university presidents to cripple a strong base of support among Democrats. The ham-fistedness of his effort revealed itself when the White House posted a McClatchy report, which makes clear that Trump was using the HBCU presidents in a transparent, window-dressing effort “to outdo his predecessors.”

It didn’t work. The White House meeting turned out to be more of an embarrassing photo opportunity and not much listening to what the black presidents had to say. And what about that presidential executive order on HBCUs? Well, there wasn’t a lot of fiscal meat on the bones of that either. While President Trump did answer the presidents’ plea for a tour of the Oval Office, he didn’t give them the money they were expecting to receive.

As BET reported, “Although the Trump administration has made much effort [to] show its alignment with historically Black colleges and universities, the recently signed executive order does not increase the amount of federal funding given to HBCUs.” The black-oriented website noted, “In a nutshell, Trump’s executive order does not strongly depart from an order signed by the Obama administration in 2009.”

Let’s put it another way: Those black presidents who posed with a grinning President Trump in the Oval Office came to Washington and left with nothing but a swell souvenir selfie with Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump.

Mercifully for this White House, Black History Month is over for 2017. I’ll bet everyone over there is relieved at not having to showcase another week of cluelessness about black Americans.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.