Did the UNCF make a deal with the devil?


When the Koch Foundation gave the United Negro College Fund $25 million, it set off a maelstrom of comments in cyberspace and real time. How dare the UNCF take money from the Koch brothers, some asked. They ought to send it back, said others. One woman told me she would never give to UNCF again because of the Koch donation. Another says the Koch donation changes her perception of UNCF.

The donation will provide $18.5 million in scholarships, money that is badly needed to get some of our young people out of school, especially with the cuts so many experienced because of reduced access to the Parent Plus loan. Another $4 million will go to the 37 UNCF schools for general support, again to make up some of the losses that came from reduced enrollment due to Parent Plus. The remainder goes to UNCF for their general support.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Koch scholarships will be awarded to students with good grades, financial needs, and an interest in studying how “entrepreneurship, economics and innovation contribute to well-being for individuals, communities, and society.” Sounds like conservative free markets to me. More than that, it sounds like granting scholarships to further the Koch government-reducing, free market focus. Koch protects its interest by having two seats on the five member scholarship committee, with the other three from the UNCF. While non-Koch interests are the majority, it will be interesting to see if a donor can sway a committee.

What else? The Koch brothers are making the most of this gift in the media. Rarely have I seen so many headlines generated by a gift of that size. $100 million, maybe. $250 million, surely. But while $25 million will mean a lot to the UNCF, schools such as Harvard would likely consider it nothing more than a modest behest. The Koch brothers must think they’ll get some positive publicity from their gift, and they obviously have the PR team to pitch it.

Furthermore, these are the very Koch brothers who have supported voter suppression efforts. They would reduce the size of government, which means the Pell grants that so many students depend on would shrink in size. What one hand gives, in other words, the other takes away. If the Koch brothers would fight to maintain or increase the size of the Pell grant, fewer would look askance at their gift. Instead, many see this as the cynical manipulation of a deep-pockets donor who gets much publicity from their gift.

It kind of reminds me of the Donald Sterling gift to the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP. After Sterling’s racist rant, his donation was returned. Still, the NAACP was in the process of giving him a second lifetime achievement award prior to his verbal rampage. Indeed the 2014 outrage against Sterling had elements of class bias. The multi-million dollar players weren’t angry when he discriminated against African Americans and Latinos in the slum housing he owned – which cost him a couple of million dollars to settle with the Justice Department – but they were dismayed when he made negative comments about them. Their earlier silence equaled acquiescence to Sterling’s racism; their protest suggested that they would get angry only when rancid racism was directed at them.

Do basketball players really think that Sterling is the only NBA owner who harbors racist views? Those owners have enough sense not to articulate them publicly. If they know that other owners share Sterling’s views then they condone closed door racism, not the open door kind. If they are aware, and don’t care or share, they are making deals with the devil.

If the Koch brothers are the devil, then most of our organizations are making deals with the devil. Look at the list of sponsors for any African American organization or event. Sit through a board meeting, and listen to folks review possible sponsors, many corporate. There are “good” corporations whose diversity portfolio is robust, and then there are those who need a little help. The need for funds notwithstanding, are we for sale for the price of a table or a few salmon (used to be chicken) dinners?

On the other hand, when the New York Times criticized the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation for its corporate support, Elsie Scott, the then-director said that if we spent money on certain products it was only right that we get their support. Does this apply to the Koch donation?

Unfortunately, too many African American organizations buy what we want and beg for what we need. Many in the African American community have $25 million to give to the United Negro College Fund. Many could spend the dollars to support our students. The fact that we do not leaves us vulnerable to contributions like Koch, contributions that come with strings and, perhaps, a conservative agenda.

Should UNCF President Michael Lomax send the money back? Only if someone steps up to replace it. The $18.5 million for scholarships represents 3,700 scholarships for students. If the $4 million is divided equally among 37 schools, it means $108,000 per school, enough to hire back one of the people laid off and to support some programs. Should Michael Lomax lay down with the devil? Where is the angel?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.