The following letter was delivered to the Delaware State University community from its president, Dr. Tony Allen, on Thursday.
Yesterday, Elon Musk and others posted disturbing social media remarks questioning the talent and intellect of historically Black college and university students in general and HBCU aviation program graduates in particular, which necessarily includes our own here at Delaware State University. Such statements come just a few days before the nation celebrates the birthday of one of its most consequential sons — an American force on the world stage and enshrined in human history — an HBCU alum, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The remarks were unoriginal in their amplification of antiquated racial tropes, signify little of objective consequence and strike any learned ear as attention-seeking noise. The HBCU legacy is 186 years old and proud — replete with talent, intelligence, achievement, success and contributions to an America that would be poorer without it. Black aviators are competent professionals required to attain the same achievement standard as any counterpart, particularly at HBCUs.
Any accusation otherwise echoes humanity’s silliest yet most pervasive prejudices and reverberates with debunked narratives that have always sought to oppress populations to preserve the power of another. Consider that American history tells the tale of one immigrant wave oppressing the next and the next in favor of its own. And Black Americans have been here all the while — withstanding, transcending and soaring, despite the pressure to remain earthbound forever.
The HBCU legacy is rightly credited with creating the Black middle class and, more importantly, enriching America with our pride and commitment to service and leadership in every field of human endeavor.
Aviation is one area in which Black participation has been hard-won. Still, we are making great strides, achieving success at the same objective classifications and standards set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration. Qualified is qualified. There is no free pass anywhere in this field. During World War II, at Delaware State University, we were among six HBCUs with aviation programs that ultimately became the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The uninformed would do well to recall that the annals of American military history are full of Black achievements and heroics, including those of the Tuskegee Airmen, with their stellar record. It was, of course, after the war — and after almost every war in our nation’s history — when Black veterans returned home to find closed doors in the aviation industry despite their manifest competence.
Today, we graduate more qualified pilots of color than any other school in the country and serve many aviation students from all backgrounds, regardless of where they come from. That’s an America worth fighting for and flying for.
HBCUs have been there for them and for any student who sought an education. Without HBCUs, 325,000 fewer students of color every year would have college degrees. Without HBCUs, there would be 30% fewer Black scientists and STEM professionals. Without HBCUs, the number of Black lawyers would be cut in half. Without HBCUs, there would be almost no Black doctors. Without HBCUs, the Black middle class would be decimated, and without HBCUs, by 2030, the detrimental impact to the American economy of all that loss would be at least $1.7 trillion. All of this has been achieved despite systemic underfunding over time and despite racist narratives belying the very truth of our excellence.
In this country of equal opportunity — an ideal that fueled the passions of our founding, an ideal that drives the ambitions of all blessed enough to call this country home and an ideal toward which we, together, continue to move ever closer — talent and intelligence of all kinds are treasure found in every population, regardless of race, class, gender, creed or religion. We must never look upon that treasure and label it something else at the behest of those who attempt to trick us for their gain.
I would warn us instead against those who masquerade as intelligent but who, as Dr. King himself warned, lack the hallmarks of the truly educated. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of proper education.
“To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit, in many instances, do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal and the facts from the fiction. … The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but with no morals” — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Purpose of Education,” Maroon Tiger, 1947 (kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/purpose-education).
Let us rise up and fly above the fray, considering anew: Who do we admire? From whom do we buy and why? How do we serve those whose talent has yet to meet opportunity? Do we participate in the political process? How do we wield the power of our education?
Regardless of the questions, remember you (we) are the answer.
Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.