“When the white man came, we had the land and they had the Bibles. Now they have the land and we have the Bibles.” – Chief Dan George
Let us be clear, we need the money. Over 95 percent of HBCUs have endowments that are less than $100 million. In 2015, Sweet Briar College, a women’s college in Virginia, abruptly decided to cease operations. It sent shock waves through the higher education world and for many HBCU advocates it was an indirect message to our institutions that the fire alarm for survival for colleges on the financial fringes was not just a drill, but smoke could be seen in the very near distance. Sweet Briar College had an endowment of $75 million, which would put it firmly ahead of over 90 percent of HBCUs currently – and it closed.
It is no secret that the racial wealth gap makes it extremely difficult for African Americans to compete in philanthropic terms with our counterparts. The Federal Reserve in September 2020 reported, “White families have the highest level of both median and mean family wealth: $188,200 and $983,400, respectively. Black families’ median and mean wealth is less than 15 percent that of White families, at $24,100 and $142,500, respectively.” Given these numbers and given how much consistent financial philanthropic efforts are largely correlated with disposable income and wealth, then this certainly can give some understanding to the story of why HBCUs and African American nonprofit organizations (NPOs) in general have struggled. The Black Church (Are African American Churches Derailing African America’s Economic Progress?) being the lone exception to this rule, which has created a domino effect of instability for secular NPO development and infrastructure in our community’s institutions. Simply put, with what little money we do have to give it almost all has for the past three to four decades gone into the black hole coffers of the Black Church and done little to build proper financial infrastructure for other community supporting organizations. Enter white hope and savior.
2020 has seen unprecedented gifts to HBCUs from white philanthropists starting with Mackenzie Scott, one of the cofounders of Amazon, who at the time of this writing is worth almost $60 billion. She made waves with her unprecedented and seemingly unsolicited gifts to six HBCUs and HBCU supporting organizations that totaled more than $160 million. This was followed up shortly after by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. and worth almost $55 billion himself, with donating $100 million as well to the nation’s four HBCU medical schools. These two donations alone are equivalent to approximately 10 percent of all 100 plus HBCUs combined endowments over their 100 plus year history. Finally in some HBCU circles it was exalted, mainstream America also known as European/White America was “seeing” us and giving us our just due. Paying what was owed to us for so long being mistreated and underfunded. However, that same tune was not being sung or so kind when the Koch brothers donated $50 million between the United Negro College Fund and Thurgood Marshall Fund in 2014 and 2017, respectively. There were some who even called for the money to be returned in both cases so there is an inherent complexity in our organizations being in dire need of funds, but also wanting to be particular about who the donor is. The conversation about HBCUs and European American donors seems to be one that is little discussed and complex in its acknowledgment. But the elephant is there.
In fact, unless something astonishing happens in the rest of 2020 and since HBCU Money has been reporting on the Million Dollar Donations To HBCUs beginning in 2013, three of the seven years of largest donations to HBCUs have come from European/White Americans. There is certainly some historical reasoning behind schools like Hampton, Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, and Tuskegee receiving attention from European American benefactors. These schools have a long storied history and ties with them since their founding. Morehouse and Spelman receiving their names as a result of their generous funding from one John D. Rockefeller, Sr in the late nineteenth century. It is no coincidence that their early proximity to whiteness has allowed them to fair far better financially today than their HBCU counterparts founded by African American interest. But what does it mean when European Americans are the dominant donors of HBCUs and not African Americans?
The long complex history of European American philanthropy as a social, economic, and political tool of influence seems often remiss in our community. African Americans have a naïve tendency to believe culturally that philanthropy is altruism. This despite us all having a familial experience where one family member lent money to another family member and even if the money is paid back, the lender never seems to let it not be told at Thanksgiving how they saved said family member. Think about European American philanthropy as a tool – missionaries in Africa, seemingly endless aid to Africa through the IMF and World Bank that has been used to create dependency states versus developed (see competitive) economies and you start to realize that philanthropy can have a strategic purpose. It paints a picture that Africans are incapable of empowering themselves and that without European and European American benevolence they simply could not survive. The same picture can be painted for HBCUs and African American NPOs.
It is hard to speak out against European and European American injustice towards the African Diaspora if you are HBCUs and African American NPOs (AANPOs) when that is the hand that feeds you. How can you convince African Americans that African American institutions are the mechanism by which we can empower ourselves as a community if they themselves are unable to find a solution? There have been a number of HBCUs who have come under pressure from wanting to have someone like Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam speak. Whether you agree with his ideology or not, the African American community understands the perch from which he speaks even if they do not agree with it. It should be us who decides who can and can not speak, but that is not how money works. Money garners influence in ways that can make you sit up in your bed uncomfortable at night because you heard something rumbling in the closet, but you live alone.
Let us be clear, it is not that accepting money from European Americans is bad or unacceptable. There is a fine line between cutting off one’s nose to spite your own face. However, who has the leverage in the donation is vital. Is it money you have to have to keep the doors open or money that just provides icing on the cake? In the former it is the donor who wields immense power and in the latter it is in the institution. HBCU alumni must at least be willing to have the conversation about where our institutions money is coming from and more importantly how can we can ensure non-HBCU donors do not garner influence that moves us off our purpose to serve African American social, economic, and political interest and empowerment.