This is quite the conundrum.
Charles Barkley this week announced $2 million in support to Clark Atlanta University and Alabama A&M University, his second consecutive year of seven-figure giving to at least one historically black campus totaling $3 million in exclusive HBCU giving over the period.
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Charles Koch met with hundreds of HBCU students last week at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s annual Leadership Training Institute in Washington D.C., taking questions on his more than 50 years of experience in entrepreneurship. The students threw million dollar questions at the billionaire, and he answered them not as a lofty, wealthy white benefactor, but as a man willing to share the path to the intersection of hard work, fortune, and innovation.
This meeting took place just a few years after giving nearly $30 million to the United Negro College Fund.
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Everybody can agree that the number one thing holding back HBCUs from branding as nationally relevant and recognizable institutions of learning and research is money. Most people can agree that HBCU are set apart from other universities by the unique and complex melding of higher education and racial pride.
But those of us being honest about it know the complexity of trying to reconcile a generational quiet truth, that in 2016 appears to be emerging in its latest and most public iterations — conservatives, with all of their flaws real and perceived, are among the biggest and most public HBCU benefactors you’ll find anywhere.
Except for Bill Gates, look at the Forbes list of America’s richest people and try to find another prominent donor to historically black colleges beyond Koch in the top 10. In professional sports, try to find another athlete current and former who has given as much to HBCUs as publicly as Barkley has just in the last two years.
Even among prominent HBCU donors with liberal political leanings, consider the conservative tendencies they have shown over the years. Remember that whole thing Oprah Winfrey had with hip-hop?
Before being outed as an alleged serial rapist, remember when Bill Cosby popularized pound cake way before Beyoncé did it?
John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, the Quakers — history may show a lot of liberal benefactors to HBCUs, but very few that have historical or contemporary claim to transformative black college philanthropy which exceeds the work of conservatives and/or Republicans.
This isn’t to say that the party at large should be considered as a great movement of black liberationists. Beyond Barkley, Koch and others, there are a significant number of political operatives and lawmakers with keen sights set upon disrupting black communities and perceived economic dependence through the destruction of southern black colleges. You can see it in policy making, election gerrymandering, budget cuts and audit authority over black colleges in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi.
But at least you see it coming down bottom. That’s not always the case above the Mason-Dixon line.
In Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, it is far more challenging when unaccompanied by video and legislative evidence delivered by folks like North Carolina’s Bob Pettinger in the aftermath of unrest in Charlotte.
Many of us side-eye Republican strategists like Shermichael Singleton and Paris Dennard, but their words in support of conservative outreach are being matched by millions of dollars from the Republican side.
There should always be a measure of cynicism from black folks towards conservative politics, given the ways in which our communities have been ravaged by policy and oversight in criminal justice, housing, industry and financial systems, established by right-wing executives and laws established in years and decades past.
But eventually, we as HBCU advocates will have to face certain facts about our culture in crisis, and who are the partners that, for reasons spoken or unspoken, are giving the real dollars necessary to reverse our dangerous course.
HBCUs will not survive without the support of the super wealthy. The only reason they have made it this far is because of a 20th century commitment to racial empowerment that some presidents, like Morehouse College’s John Silvanus Wilson said in 2012, must come from a diverse group of committed philanthropists.
“While African-American wealth, if properly cultivated, could help make a meaningful difference for HBCU’s, the unmet challenge of fundamentally transforming some of the more investment-worthy colleges requires a multiracial coalition of American philanthropists who recognize the value of those institutions to our shared American future.”
Will we be sober enough to consider the possibilities of partnership beyond political labels? Will we be savvy enough to separate our interests from our ideals? And most importantly, can we do these things quickly enough before black and white folks with plenty ofmoney find better things to do with it than spend it on black folks who criticize their politics?