the dilemmas of funding: a commentary on the united negro college fund by melissa wooten
Melissa Wooten is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her forthcoming book In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt (SUNY Press 2015) documents how the social structure of race and racism affect an organization’s ability to acquire the financial and political resources it needs to survive.
“Look…Come on…It’s $10 million dollars” is how the Saturday Night Live parody explains the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) decision to accept donations from now disgraced, soon-to-be former, NBA franchise owner, Donald Sterling. This parody encapsulates the dilemma that many organizations working for black advancement face. Fighting for civil rights takes money. But this money often comes from strange quarters. While Sterling’s personal animus toward African Americans captivated the public this spring, his organizational strategy of discriminating against African Americans and Hispanic Americans had already made him infamous among those involved in civil rights years earlier. So why would the NAACP accept money from a man known to actively discriminate against the very people it seeks to help?
A similar question arose when news of the Koch brothers $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) emerged in June. Not only did the UNCF’s willingness to accept this donation raise eyebrows, it also cost the organization the support of AFSCME, a union with which the UNCF had a long-standing relationship. The Koch brothers support of policies that would limit early voting along with their opposition to minimum wage legislation are but a few of the reasons that have made some skeptical of a UNCF-Koch partnership. So why would the UNCF accept a large donation from two philanthropists known to support policies that would have a disproportionately negative affect on African American communities?
If we look into the history of the UNCF, we will find that many donors to this organization, especially in its early years, would have been quite comfortable with the Koch brothers and their politics. For example, take the Rockefeller family and its General Education Board foundation. The General Education Board provided administrative and financial support to the UNCF and individual Rockefeller family members routinely made donations. There’s little evidence to support the idea that the foundation or affiliated family members had a sweeping vision of African American progress that included full economic, political, and social equity. There’s more support for the idea that the foundation and family members believed that it was important to develop an African American leadership class that would remain apolitical while shepherding the “black masses”. Of course, that’s not exactly what happened. These donations funded schools that produced future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and these schools served as a base for SNCC, CORE, and countless other movement organizations.
Knowing this should provide comfort to all those that question the UNCF’s wisdom in accepting Koch family money. Accepting money from a group with a narrow or altogether opposing political vision doesn’t always result in disaster. It can lead to the ironic scenario in which conservatives provide the seed funding for more radical undertakings. With that history in mind, I say take the money and run! Use that money to produce the next generation of politically active and engaged African Americans. You never know what revolutionary acts might spring forth.