With Koch Brothers, UNCF Walks Fine Line Between Partnership and Pandering

When the money you need turns into words you don’t really want to say.

Courtesy: Patrick T. Fallon (Washington Post)

United Negro College Fund CEO and President Michael Lomax played it beautifully two years ago, when he told a puzzled national HBCU community that taking $25 million from the notoriously conservative Koch Brothers that criticism of him was a small price to ensure a college education for thousands of black students.

“Criticism is a small price for helping young people get the chance to realize their dream of a college education, and if I’ve got to bear the brunt of someone else’s criticism to ensure that we have the resources to help those students, then I can handle it, and I can take the heat.”

But then you read a joint op-ed from Dr. Lomax and Charles Koch, one half of the conservative cultural war machine, and the questions tumble through those hallways of the mind roped off by a commitment to racial and cultural pride; particularly the opening of the piece, which two years later, positions the scholarship program as a backdrop to how the country can better reconcile ideological differences without vitriol or threats to modern democracy.

Our unlikely alliance — the white, classical liberal chairman of Koch Industries and the black, modern liberal president of the United Negro College Fund (the country’s largest provider of scholarships to students of color), began with a quote hung on a wall in the offices of the Charles Koch Foundation. It was something the great abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass said 161 years ago: “I would unite with anybody to do right,” Douglass told the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, “and with nobody to do wrong.”

Financial support to black students is right; just like saying ‘all lives matter’ is morally right. But the timing of when you say it, and the motivation for saying it can be so wrong, that it marginalizes the universal truth of the statement, and accentuates the privilege and the oppression which makes the counter-narrative to such a universal truth necessary in the first place.

In the last 24 hours, the two largest advocacy organizations representing historically black colleges and universities have been in the news for their unorthodox relationships with the GOP. Yesterday, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund was highlighted in The Atlantic for a staff member’s side hustle as a conservative commentator.

And in USA Today, Frederick Douglass speaks to the value of partnership between Black America and the family whose side hustles include funding for election shaping, policy commandeering and working to shape a new generation of conservative operatives.

The casual observer probably thinks the stories are a coincidental nod to the final stretch to the projected landslide defeat of Donald Trump in the presidential election. The HBCU conspiracist probably believes that the GOP is hard at work pitching stories to widely-read outlets to show early connections between a disjointed GOP and black folks, in the hopes that they can preserve some seed of respect among black voters for congressional seats.

And the purist HBCU advocate probably believes these to be a combination of both, heaped on top of the prayer that our advocacy executives aren’t being forced into strange words and deeds to match the strange political times in which we now live.

UNCF was all but in the clear, two years removed from being blasted by black HBCU supporters and white sideline enthusiasts over a partnership funded by wealth created from oil, manufacturing and bad intentions. But this letter, issued at this point in the nation’s tumultuous era of race relations, puts new cracks in the confidence of UNCF’s overview of this scholarship fund, and worse, the autonomy of its executive voice.

There is nothing to be gained for UNCF from the HBCU community with this letter, but plenty to gain from wealthy middle-aged white guys who concede the need to support black causes and people in the preservation of GOP respectability. And like many white people, they understand that there is little space they can scratch out without a black surrogate telling the black masses to move back, to wipe the disbelieving scowls off our faces, and to hear what a white person “who gets it” has to say.

These episodes cast negative light on white people who actually do ‘get it’ beyond the spectrum of pity, those who do understand beyond the struggle narrative, and those who actually do work to promote growth for black people and black institutions. Unfortunately, they tend not to have Koch Brothers' money, and so we get by applauding their concern and insight, but with no more resources for their troubles, or ours.

But this letter is like the CIAA staying in Charlotte, Donald Trump at a black church in Detroit, and Mr. Morgan State’s ‘All Lives Matter’ shirt all upside our heads like a Homey D. Clown highlight reel.

It doesn’t fit the times, doesn’t jive with the unspoken agenda HBCUs have to maximize on newfound attention and support, and doesn’t help in making the case for exactly what higher education is for black Americans; economic, political and social rebellion against white supremacy and privilege.

If there’s a chance the Koch Brothers are up for another round of financial support to UNCF, it is understandable why this kind of letter had to come out. And if that is true, it is commendable that Dr. Lomax can activate the inner Booker T. Washington that each of us has, the entrepreneurial preservationist who recognizes the true danger that race in America represents for minority citizens.

But if all of these things are true, shame on us for allowing Dr. Lomax to work and to live in this position, for allowing one man to endure the heat of America’s continuing racial drought, and that on behalf of black students everywhere, he alone has to have his words, intentions and character viewed as a lifeline for the drowning, gurgling republican establishment.

Like us, he deserves better.