Rethinking the Culture Wars at Morehouse College

By Frank Roberts
Originally published in October 2009 at theroot.com


The conversation regarding the new dress-code policy at Morehouse College has been hijacked by a vociferous gang of socially conservative black pundits: some of them simply politically misguided, others merely proud homophobes; a few of them the ideological love-children of Ward Connerly and Bill Cosby. In the short week and a half since I became the first writer to report the news of Morehouse’s new policy, the college has become the subject of an intensifying national debate regarding the role that style plays in producing (or constraining) black male substance.

By now, there is no need to explain what went “down” at Morehouse. You already know. But while you may have already heard the details of Morehouse’s new “no grills or purses” policy, it’s quite possible that you have yet to hear an impassioned defense of grillz and purses in the spirit of Morehouse’s most illustrious progenitors.

There are those who have argued that it is inappropriate to incite a national public dialogue about what’s happening at a private, independently funded college. In the blogosphere, there have been comments in recent days such as “What goes on at Morehouse is a private affair between its students, alumni and administrators. There is nothing illegal about a private school enforcing a dress code. Any student who is unhappy with the dress code has the liberty to leave.”

These voices are misguided and unsophisticated. Morehouse College is much more than simply a “private institution;” it is a black cultural pillar. In other words, the institution we call “Morehouse” is quite similar to the institution we call “the black church.” One does not have to be a member of these institutions in order to be affected by what goes on within their walls. Given Morehouse’s stature as a historical pillar, all African-American men (not just those who are students or alumni of the institution) have an ethical obligation to contribute to this national dialogue about the politics of the college’s policies—especially in instances where it promotes a climate of rampant anti-ghetto-culture classism and femiphobia.

The bourgeois classism and femiphobia embedded in Morehouse’s policy are symptomatic of a stubborn refusal on behalf of African Americans to have open discussions about 1) the sizable presence of gay men within our community, including (and perhaps especially) at institutions like Morehouse and 2) the continued popularity of black urban culture on the stylistic sensibilities of our black male youth.

The idea that young black men on college campuses are so developmentally arrested that the only way that they can distinguish between what to wear in the classroom vs. what to wear in “corporate America” is by prohibiting them from wearing sagging jeans at all times, is not only absolutely ridiculous, it’s also quite racist. Young black men are all too familiar with having our cultural fashions and stylistics pathologized as deviant, criminal or dysfunctional. It is thus painfully ironic that an administration such as Morehouse—run by and for black men—would promote a policy that implies that baggy jeans are a visual marker of anti-achievement.

Moreover, simply being a private college does not give Morehouse the ethical license to engage in fascist tactics. The vast majority of the nation’s top institutions (ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Yale University) do not depend on dress codes to “make sure” that their students are intelligent enough to deduce that walking into a medical school interview with gold teeth might not make for a stellar first impression. Instead, these institutions realize that even in the most challenging of intellectual environments, students should be allowed to express themselves on campus freely, in whatever clothing suits their interests.

Turning Morehouse College into a playground of men with cardigans and bow ties will not substantively increase the institution’s rapidly declining graduation rates (at last check, only 64 percent of Morehouse men graduate within six years). Nor will it help to reverse the college’s long-standing inability to attract superstar black faculty in the humanities or social sciences. (I doubt that a new undergraduate “dress code” would be appealing to the likes of Bell Hooks or Cornel West.) Nor will it beef up the resources that one would expect to find on the campus of a purportedly “elite” college (such as better library holdings, laboratories or facilities).

So the question becomes: What’s really behind this decision?

Morehouse College is at a crossroads, and it’s one that has nothing to do with cross-dressing. The institution is suffering from a financial and vision mismanagement crisis that threatens to rock the foundation of the college’s pedigree. The administration has failed repeatedly to substantively raise the college’s meek endowment (currently only at $117 million, a far cry from Spelman College’s $291 million and Howard’s comparatively colossal $490 million). Moreover, the administration has still not effectively come up with a strategy for raising the college’s national ranking (Both Spelman and Howard have recently ascended into U.S. News & World Report’s coveted “Tier 1” classification, while Morehouse lags behind in “Tier 3,” one rank above the lowest possible designation.)

Thus, the college’s decision to regulate the fashion trends of its undergrad student body is nothing short of a lazy attempt to shift the focus away from a failing administration that has had a less-than-stellar “job performance” in the crucial arenas of endowment, rank and matriculation. The administration’s buffoonish emphasis on attire instead of actual academic achievement is perhaps precisely why the college finds itself in the unfortunate situation it has inherited. Prohibiting feminine clothing and “ghetto gear” is simply an easy way of refusing to get down to the more serious, nitty-gritty work of revitalizing Morehouse’s scholastic legacy.

Moreover, the sexual politics of Morehouse’s dress code not only sends out a disheartening message to the legions of feminine or gender non-conforming black boys who one day hope to attend “The House” (long ago, I was one of them), it also promulgates an openly hostile climate toward current students on Morehouse’s campus who have an alternative vision of what a “Morehouse man” actually looks like. The policy is not so much “homophobic” (indeed, many gay men do not wear women’s clothing, therefore it is unfair to assume that the policy is directed toward gay men at large) as much as it is “femiphobic” (an attempt to vilify the subset of gay men who choose to express themselves in women’s clothing).

But perhaps most disturbingly, the new dress-code policy at Morehouse College is a stunning retrenchment of the prophetic vision once made famous by the institution’s most distinguished alumnus: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. It was Dr. King, of course, who prophesied the dawn of a political landscape where men would be judged first and foremost by the “content of their character” rather than by the superficial trappings of color (or, by extension, clothing). Morehouse’s dress-code policy is nothing short of a reversal of the ethical sensibility of Dr. King, who warned us repeatedly about the ruse of the exterior (color, gender, etc.) over the more substantive interior (intelligence, character, integrity). Perhaps this administration might rethink its policy in relationship to the man who most Americans see as the true embodiment of the institution’s political promise.

As African-American men, we all “belong” to Morehouse College, and Morehouse belongs to us. Doing the work of transforming the politics of sexuality and class within the black community is no easy task. But perhaps the best place to begin is in the halls of our “house.”

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