More than step shows: Meet Jared Ball, the Morgan State professor debunking HBCU myths

If you attended a historically Black college or university, you’ve heard it all before.

HBCU students spend their refund checks on Jordan’s, crab legs and haircuts.

Non-Black students only go to HBCUs for the free tuition. 

HBCU presidents routinely run budget deficits by making bad financial decisions.

HBCU alumni refuse to give back to their alma maters. 

Jared Ball, a professor of Africana and communication studies, at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore, says that’s all bull.  

Ball works to debunk myths of income, wealth and buying power in the Black community, including at HBCUs.

The timing for Ball’s research couldn’t be more perfect as discussions of how much federal funding HBCUs should receive circulates with misinformation. President Biden has proposed a $45 billion plan; Congressional Democrats have said HBCUs should only receive $2 billion. 

Nonetheless, Ball says the perception of HBCU finances goes deeper than funding. 

“I think the struggles of HBCUs reflect the struggles of Black people more broadly speaking in this country. They are treated unequally, they are downplayed in their importance historically, they are under-appreciated, and they are marginalized,” said Ball. 

Ball chats with Reckon about why, systemically speaking, HBCUs have smaller budgets and how his book “Myths and Propaganda of the Black Buying Power” can help debunk economic myths in the Black community.

Can you summarize your book “Myths and Propaganda of the Black Buying Power”?

We often hear that Black people have what is reported well over $1 trillion in buying power and my book is about the origins of this often misreported and misunderstood myth and an explanation of how marketing and advertising phrase is meant to assess the ability of consumers to spend what little they have on products they don’t own.

This is often misreported as an economic strength for income, wealth, or even gross domestic product. And none of that is true. I just try to explain how it has been intentionally developed to discourage Black people from political organization and political power feeding into the mythologies of entrepreneurialism, business and financial literacy.

How has a lack of funding played an imperative role in the financial history and capabilities of HBCUs?

The problem, of course, is not specifically funding. But it’s the role that HBCUs have been meant to play in this society. So historically, their purpose has been about creating a separate Black class that would not be of much help in assisting the rest of the Black community in any kind of radical change being created in this society.

There is a more recent history of the shift in funding going to HBCUs with the focus being increasingly, science technology engineering and math fields (STEM) and moving funding away from liberal arts, specifically to reduce the threat that these universities would produce critically thinking politically radical Black communities.

How does the work you do around Black economic myths come up as a professor that teaches at an HBCU?

This semester I’m getting the opportunity to use my book as a course text for a class on race and economics, but in general, these issues come up, as they do anywhere else in the Black community.

Students are inundated with a great amount of mythology about the potential of a college degree or the potential for themselves to engage the business world and to drastically change their lives.

A lot of times students come into classes like mine and are challenged to see the world through a different political lens or frame. And there is an array of responses, some are interested and excited and some are resistant and even hostile at the idea that wealth or riches await those who just simply work hard when really that is a part of the fantasy and mythology.

These students are just like anybody else in the Black community and they are having to respond to a media environment that does not do a good job of explaining the economic condition they face or what might be done about it.

Can the media do a better job of changing the narrative around HBCUs and the misinformation they have the ability to spread?

In some ways, the mainstream media cannot and will not change the narrative because they are fundamentally anti-Black, and the media is a representation of those who rule and dominate society. And that is still the prevailing view that Black people are inferior or less capable of responsibility or in this case financial literacy.

I would also like to see the discussion of HBCUs go beyond popular media representations of step shows, marching bands, and Greek life. There is almost no popular representation of HBCUs that focuses on academia, the intellectual life of faculty or students, and certainly not the work outside of STEM-related fields.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.