The Trump administration sent shock waves through the historically black-college community by suggesting in a statement on Friday night that a funding program for black college campuses may unconstitutionally allocate federal money on the basis of race.
A source close to the administration said that the statement "blindsided" many inside the White House, as well as in the Education Department, which have both spent significant time and energy wooing HBCUs — hoping to improve on a rocky relationship the schools had with the Obama administration.
The Friday statement on the government funding bill pointed to a long-standing program that gives funding for construction projects on the campuses of black colleges as one that allocates benefits "on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender." The administration, the statement said, would "treat the provisions ... in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws."
Two sources said the initial statement singling out black colleges had bypassed those who had worked on HBCU issues.
"The timing of this was crazy ... It totally blindsided the White House domestic policy staff and all of the key players on this issue, and it subsequently blindsided the HBCU community," said a second source with direct knowledge of the situation. "It was a tone-deaf statement," the source said, that black colleges saw as "literally attacking not just HBCUs but Native Americans."
Friday's White House statement also indicated that a housing block grant program for Native Americans included in the omnibus bill might be similarly unconstitutional.
But black college groups said they were not concerned that the administration would actually pull back any funding. In a statement, Johnny Taylor, president of the HBCU advocacy group the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, said he had received assurances that "there was absolutely no plan to eliminate or challenge this program."
The program in question, Taylor said, does not allocate money on the basis of race, since historically black colleges also serve large numbers of white and Latino students.
The Education Department and White House adviser Omarosa Manigault, who helped push the initiative on historically black colleges, did not respond to a request for comment.
But in another White House statement released late Sunday night, Trump said he was committed to using funds as consistent with the Constitution — and that he continued to support HBCUs.
"The statement that accompanied my signing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017, sets forth my intention to spend the funds it appropriates, including the funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), consistently with my responsibilities under the Constitution," Trump said. "It does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions."
Trump also pointed to his executive order related to supporting HBCUs, and to the upcoming commencement address Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is scheduled to give at historically black Bethune-Cookman University.
In a statement of her own on Sunday, DeVos said she is a "strong supporter" of HBCUs.
Darren Sands contributed additional reporting to this story.
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Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. She covers the intersection of business and education.
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