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Trump’s Tentative First Step Toward Black Voters

He hasn't yet promised money to help historically black colleges, but some school leaders say his outreach is an improvement over Obama's.

JIM WATSON / Getty Images

Walter M. Kimbrough is a hardcore Democrat: His son was born on Election Day in 2008, and thus given the middle name “Barack.” But this week Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, a historically black college in New Orleans, came to Washington, D.C., to see if he might be able to work with the Republican leaders—including America’s birther-in-chief—who spent eight years demonizing President Obama.

Kimbrough was in attendance when President Donald Trump welcomed 64 presidents of HBCUs to the Oval Office on Monday for an unscheduled photo op. He left the room frustrated that the school leaders didn’t get to talk longer with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other administration officials. “I’m still processing that entire experience,” Kimbrough wrote in a Medium post late Monday. “But needless to say that threw the day off and there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today.”

But Kimbrough spent Tuesday on Capitol Hill, speaking in depth with congressional leaders and Trump signed an executive order to move a federal program supporting HBCUs directly under the White House’s purview. While signing the order, Trump said the schools would be “an absolute priority” for his administration.

“Today actually was really good,” Kimbrough told me after huddling with lawmakers at the Library of Congress. He praised the daylong HBCU summit—hosted by Senator Tim Scott and Representative Mark Walker, both Republicans—where House Speaker Paul Ryan voiced support for expanding Pell Grants.

HBCU presidents are asking for $25 billion for infrastructure, college readiness, and financial aid. Kimbrough was skeptical that Trump and members of Congress would meet that demand, but he was also a bit regretful: He wished HBCUs saw this level of outreach under the first black president.

“The moment would have been so much more meaningful had Barack Obama been the one who invited Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Kimbrough told me. He said it was “painful” to grapple with the fact that the Trump administration, at least superficially, appears to be making HBCUs more of a priority than the Obama administration. “This is the same person who still has not apologized for the Central Park 5 and questioned the president’s citizenship,” he said. “If he really steps up and does something big for HBCUs, he strikes a major blow at President Obama’s legacy. We can’t even deny that.”

Trump appears eager to strike such a blow: The White House issued a press release this week that merely republished a McClatchy article titled “Trump Seeks to Outdo Obama in Backing Black Colleges.” It’s easy to see why they did. The article says the plan “is politically shrewd” and its “potential is huge,” and the first quote comes from a “longtime educator” who’s helping to write the executive order. “It would be truly, truly historic,” Leonard Haynes told McClatchy.

And it’s a rare instance where Trump, who frequently calls inner cities “a disaster” and overwhelmingly lost the black vote in November, has a genuine opportunity to win over a sliver of the Obama coalition. But if he doesn’t live up to his promises to this community, he may fall yet further in their esteem by 2020.

As The Undefeated’s Michael A. Fletcher recounted last October, Obama had a “roller coaster relationship with HBCUs” during his presidency. He allowed $85 million in Bush-era funding to the schools to expire, only to restore it a year later. In 2011, he tightened requirements for the federal Parent PLUS Loan, in the hopes of keeping down college debt, and inadvertently caused some 28,000 students to lose their loans. Obama loosened the rules again two years later following an outcry, but the damage had been done to students and the schools, which lost an estimated $250 million.

In general, Fletcher noted, advocates wished the first black president had done more to address the unique challenges of HBCUs, many of which are plagued by “low graduation rates, high loan default rates and deep financial troubles...Given that array of challenges, many HBCU advocates were hoping that Obama would do more to lift their fortunes. But his focus has been on improving college access and affordability for all students, not necessarily singling out HBCUs for special help.”

For example, advocates say, Obama criticized HBCUs for low graduation rates, but proposed two years of free community college—which also suffers from low graduation rates. Also, they worried this plan–if not applicable to HBCUs—would result in fewer students attending HBCUs. (HBCUs were ultimately incorporated into Obama’s community college proposal.)

Some argue much of the criticism of Obama on HBCUs is overblown.

“I do not think that President Obama, overall, disappointed HBCUs,” Marybeth Gasman, a higher education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told me in an email. She called the change to Parent PLUS loans “one bad move,” but praised Obama’s investment in the Pell Grant program and said “he and Michelle highlighted the work of HBCUs through programs and many campus visits for graduation and other occasions, promoted scholars and students from HBCUs, and maintained funding for HBCUs through various acts and titles.” Gasman said Obama also earmarked grant programs specifically for HBCUs, driving additional funding to the schools.

Gasman is skeptical that anything will change under Trump, but Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund that represents 47 public HBCUs, told reporters Tuesday that it’s “ironic” HBCUs are getting such attention from Trump. This didn’t happen with an African-American president,” he said. “We wrote President Barack Obama’s office every year during his presidency, and requested the same meeting, and it never happened.”

“Frankly,” he added, “the attention we’ve received in the last 45 or so days exceeds not just this past administration but the past three or four administrations.” Though Taylor is holding out to see about funding, he said, “[Trump] has clearly been more attentive.”

To truly satisfy these advocates where Obama disappointed them, Trump will need to do much more than shelve his racially charged rhetoric. He’ll have to make real funding commitments. Without this, his executive order doesn’t do much, as Inside Higher Ed reported:

Despite the serious hype that surrounded the order, including weeks of promising it would go beyond previous administrations’ efforts, it offered no other concrete changes from previous orders, such as new funding commitments or contracting requirements by federal agencies. The executive order creates an advisory board (similar to that of past administrations) and also urges federal agencies to consider how they can better work with historically black colleges (as did previous presidential directives).

“I know there’s a historic increase in military spending being proposed,” Kimbrough told me. “I will be pleasantly surprised if there are billions of dollars invested in HBCUs.” But he said funding would be a promising first step. “It’s an easy win for Trump,” he said. “All he has to do is put the money up.”

But given Republicans’ longtime austerity streak, and that Trump’s 2018 budget is “dead on arrival” in Congress, putting the money up is much easier said than done.