On first glance, it’s here we go again: At the start of a new year, Republicans are trying to show they really do care about African-Americans.
President Donald Trump got only 8 percent of the black vote, upset many in the community when he suggested they live largely in crime-infested cities and has selected a Cabinet where 17 of 20 nominees are white.
So here comes Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a leader of the House conservatives’ most vocal organization, trying a little matchmaking between some of Washington’s Republican leaders and the presidents and chancellors of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.
He says he’s looking for more than a first date. Walker is organizing a unique daylong gathering next month, inviting the heads of 106 black colleges, congressional Republican leaders and at least one official from Trump’s White House.
The event, in conjunction with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, will be a getting-to-know-you session to forge bonds between black college leaders wondering what to expect from a Republican-controlled Congress and Trump, and GOP lawmakers, several of whom don’t know much about HBCUs and view them largely as Democratic turf.
HBCUs are any black college or university established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African-Americans, who were barred from attending majority-white schools in the pre-civil-rights era. More than 100 campuses are designated as HBCUs and serve more than 300,000 students.
“I believe somewhere over the last 40-50 years there became a divide where Republicans said, ‘Well, let’s just concentrate over here. No need to go into various places because we’re not going to get the vote anyway,’ ” said Walker, chair of the House of Representatives’ Republican Study Committee.
He’s well aware that the gathering, scheduled for Feb. 28 at the Library of Congress, will likely spur questions among critics about whether it’s a sincere outreach effort or a political display.
“I know we’re going to take a few knocks. ‘What’s this Republican doing over here?’ I’m not oblivious to that,” Walker said. “But I believe with each passing step . . . we’ll have enough credibility that ‘These guys are legit.’ ”
Not to Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.
“I do not think a meeting will produce anything,” Gasman said. “The Trump administration has zero knowledge or interest in HBCUs. . . . Past Republican presidents have supported HBCUs, but they have also appointed people who are familiar with their legacy.”
But Scott Jennings, a deputy political director in President George W. Bush’s White House, saw value.
“For a political party with complete control of the government, as Republicans have right now, reaching out to other communities is smart, not just from a political standpoint but from a governing standpoint,” he said.
It can’t hurt at the polls, either.
Jennings credited the Bush White House’s outreach to the Hispanic community for helping the GOP win 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, the best showing for a Republican presidential candidate in recent elections.
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s president and CEO, said the GOP gesture toward HBCUs was sincere. He considers the meeting a valuable opportunity for HBCU leaders to get face time with key lawmakers and Trump surrogates to push their agendas.
“People in the new administration don’t know what HBCUs are and specifically don’t know what issues are important to this community,” he said. “We’ve got to bring this community to Washington . . . to share why HBCUs matter and what their contributions are to the American higher education landscape.”
Black colleges represent only 3 percent of the nation’s two-year and four-year institutions. They account for about 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-American students and 25 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields earned by African-Americans, according to U.S. Department of Education and Thurgood Marshall College Fund statistics.
HBCUs are responsible for 80 percent of African-American judges, 50 percent of black lawyers and 40 percent of black members of Congress, according to the Marshall college fund.
Taylor and the black college presidents and chancellors will get a chance to tell the HBCU story to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus, who are among the Republicans scheduled to attend the meeting.
Omarosa Manigault, the communications director for the White House’s Office of Public Liaison and a graduate of Central State University and Howard University, will also be there, administration officials said.
Black colleges have received a lot of attention – and money – from conservatives lately. Conservative billionaire Charles Koch, through a foundation and family business, donated $25.6 million to Taylor’s fund to enable black colleges to provide undergraduate and graduate scholarships to students and grants to faculty working to establish centers on criminal justice, education and entrepreneurship.
Former President Barack Obama provided more than $4 billion in federal support to black colleges over his two terms, according to Education Department figures.
However, he was criticized by some black college presidents for making changes in Pell grants and other loan programs that they said hurt the financial health of some institutions and contributed to declining enrollment.
That, Scott said, could provide Republicans with an opportunity to make positive inroads into the HBCU community.
“The reality of it is, under the former administration, they weren’t very happy,” Scott said. “The best thing they could do is come here with open hearts, open minds, and see what’s possible.”
Taylor said Walker’s interest in HBCUs wasn’t new. Taylor learned during talks with House HBCU caucus members that Walker’s wife, Kelly, is an HBCU graduate.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Winston-Salem State University and works as a nurse practitioner and flight trauma specialist for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Air Care program.
“They have a history of good success in their health sciences department,” Kelly Walker said of her alma mater. “I felt like it was an inclusive environment and a very well-done program.”
Rep. Walker and fellow Republicans have organized a session for the presidents and chancellors to meet with industry leaders, have set up a listening session with GOP lawmakers and have arranged a luncheon followed by a live-streamed Q&A program featuring Ryan, Walker, Scott and Taylor.
The black college leaders will cap the day with a two-hour tour of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a hot ticket arranged by House Administration Committee Chair Gregg Harper, R-Miss., whose panel oversees the Smithsonian.
Congressional Democrats, for the most part, will be on the outside looking in at the GOP-HBCU bonding session. Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina, a co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus, is the only Democrat invited to speak at the event thus far.
“Hopefully, some good will come of it, the fact that we have Republicans who’ve sort of initiated it,” she said of the meeting. “I’m not sure what’s in the whole package; we haven’t been included on it. Then again, they want to get credit, and they’ll get it.”