America’s historically Black colleges and universities have traditionally existed as buffers, offering seeming shields to African Americans and protecting them from the crassness of American racism. The aim of these institutions was to grant African Americans a space to live and learn, unapologetically, as African Americans and sheltered from a society that demonized them at every opportunity. Still, today, America’s HBCUs maintain this mission, and in similar fashion, so do the hundreds of Black student unions on predominantly white college campuses. Just as the HBCU serves to inform and protect African Americans in a seemingly inhospitable society, the Black student union, in microcosmic fashion, achieves the same on the American college campus.
There exists within America’s history an unfortunate, glaring truth regarding its commitment to educating African Americans; that is, doing so has never been a priority. In fact, a more damning assessment would indicate that the miseducation of African Americans has historically served the political and economic interests of America’s white male patriarchy. American history is rife with pseudo-scientific claims of both white supremacy and black inferiority, all of which were intended to relegate African Americans to a permanent state of dejection and subservience. In 1851, for example, American physician Samuel Cartwright was credited for coining the term drapetomania as a medical condition which prompted enslaved Africans to resist the inferior “position that we learn from Scriptures [they were] intended to occupy.” In the same year, Cartwright also coined dysaesthesia aethiopica as the medical term for slaves’ predisposition to laziness. These instances of pseudoscience persevered even into the Jim Crow era and inspired further “academic” studies, including Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on the plight of the Negro family in 1965.
Thus, the historically black college and university, as well as the Black student union, serve to counteract both the explicit discrimination and the explicit racism evident in America’s history. Even where African Americans were permitted to attend school with their white peers, implications of their intellectual ineptitude persisted, and so Black student unions have traditionally offered a cultural framework in which African Americans may operate free from the constraints of racist pseudoscience.
The Black student union, then, serves as an institution of great importance. It, in a sense, embodies everything which America’s ruling class has feared: Black people—educated Black people—educated Black people in coalition. ASU sophomore Lamar Piggee acknowledged the endurance of African American student bodies at predominantly white institutions, saying “The majority seems to rule in the sense that you will find that their needs are catered to first with the minority’s as an afterthought.” In such a candid assessment of on-campus race relations, we find the pressing need for Black student unions, even given the oft-suggestion of a post-racial society. In this assessment, we find the need for these coalitions; as familial networks, as intellectual hotbeds, and as sources of advocacy for disempowered Black student populations.