Analysis: The Dangerous Backlash To HBCUs’ Rise


  • At least 28 HBCUs have received bomb threats since January 4.
  • It is no coincidence that HBCUs are being targeted by this threat of violence just as they have garnered more attention and more money.
  • By their mere existence, HBCUs are proof of America’s systemic, institutionalized racism.

In less than one month, at least 28 HBCUs have received bomb threats, with some being targeted multiple times. From three instances of bomb scares on January 4, January 31 and February 1, more than 100,000 primarily Black students, staff and faculty have had their lives threatened solely because of where they choose to get an education and where they work.

While all of the threats have been unsubstantiated, they have been disruptive and disturbing. The schools have had to evacuate campuses, cancel classes and institute lockdowns until every building is checked by law enforcement. 

“I will say that these [bomb threats] are certainly disturbing,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. “The President is aware. I don’t believe he’s received a formal briefing, but he is aware of these reports.”

“The continued bomb threats against HBCUs are hate crimes that must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Joyce Beatty and HBCU Caucus Founder and Co-Chair Alma Adams said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

It is no coincidence that HBCUs are being targeted by this violence just as they have garnered more attention, more shine and more money (though they are still sorely underfunded). 

It’s known that money can attract bad actors. In late January 2021, Iranian hackers targeted Prairie View A&M, likely lured by an influx in previous months of millions of dollars in donations.

But these bomb threats are racialized violence. In the cases of at least Bethune-Cookman University, Arkansas Baptist College, Philander Smith College and Shorter College, the threats were called in by people claiming to be neo-nazis, according to local Florida and Arkansas police officials.

These threats also come at a time when the bogeyman of “critical race theory” is leading to censorship and legislation that would curtail the accurate teaching of truths like slavery or any topic that could cause white Americans  “discomfort.”

But by their mere existence, HBCUs are proof of America’s systemic, institutionalized racism. They were all created during a time when slavery or segregation was still legal, aiming to provide educational opportunities for Black Americans when other institutions wouldn’t. Every school that is considered an HBCU was created before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

These bomb threats are about terror. They are meant to be insidious and instill fear even in students at HBCUs who weren’t directly threatened. Though Grambling State University hasn’t received bomb threats, on Tuesday officials still conducted campus sweeps out of an abundance of caution

The FBI and the ATF have responded to the threats along with local and state law enforcement agencies. At Howard University,  which has been targeted three times in less than a month, security officials have scaled surveillance for suspicious activity, according to the school’s Chief of Police Marcus Lyles. HBCUs are also urging students to take advantage of counseling services if they need them.

Yet by their mere existence, HBCUs are also proof of the resiliency of Black Americans in the face of racist violence. 

In 1870, William Luke, a white Talladega College teacher, was lynched by the KKK for teaching formerly enslaved Black Americans. But despite the murderous intimidation, Talladega currently has more than 1,000 students and is the oldest historically Black private liberal arts college in Alabama. 

Sixty-two years ago this week, four North Carolina A&T students walked into a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, sat down at a whites-only lunch counter and helped spur the Civil Rights Movement in which countless HBCU students and alumni, like Rosa Parks (a graduate of Alabama State’s Laboratory High School), John Lewis (a graduate of Fisk University) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (a graduate of Morehouse College), faced violence and death, and yet they persisted.

That the current generation of HBCU students also faces threats is shameful, but unsurprising. White America has always shown that in the face of Black progress, the backlash is swift and violent — but they have never had the last word.

“We have never before enabled, and we will not now begin to allow tactics of intimidation to affect how we educate our students at Howard,” Wayne Frederick, President of Howard University, said in a statement.

“External pressure must not be permitted to dictate what, why and how we teach our students. On the contrary, threats of this nature only reinforce the vital mission of our hallowed and historic University and the motivation that fuels us to study, to work, to teach and to learn.”

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.