The Koch Brothers: Friends or Foes of Black Americans?

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Most black folks have no clue as to the identity of David and Charles Koch. The few that do are leery of this duo. Heirs to an oil business that they inherited from their father, the Koch brothers (as they are affectionately known), worked hard to transform it into a massive multi-business enterprise with gross profits in excess of $115 billion a year. Consistent with their strong Tea Partyish and quasi-libertarian leanings, the brothers have doled out millions of their own money in promoting conservative causes, leading to a spot on Time Magazine’s ‘Most Influential’ list.

The Kochs have been criticized in some circles as being racist, particularly for their role in championing laws that some critics believe have hindered the ability of black Americans to vote. Arguably, they’ve been a thorn in the side of President Obama; ankle biters who have challenged him every step of the way on issues ranging from health care reform to climate change. Liberals are generally repulsed by the brothers’ conservative ways and willingness to utilize their wealth by contributing millions to right-leaning causes. But because of their wealth and the pervasive impact their funding has on the everyday lives of all Americans, their influence must be accounted for.

Trick or Treat?

In 2014, these two billionaires sent shock waves through the world of higher education by donating $25 million to the United Negro College Fund in support of America’s struggling black colleges and universities. Many African-American leaders harshly criticized the move as nothing more than influence peddling. Yet the question still remained as to whether this offer of generosity would be accepted by the black higher education community in the context of the steady migration of black students to better funded and predominantly white institutions of higher education which decline federal government support, while some conservative lawmakers are trying to close under-performing and financially-strapped black colleges and universities.

My father worked at an HSBC, as they were known during the latter part of his career as a university administrator. For that reason, I paid attention to the Koch announcement, curious as to whether those United Negro College Fund leaders would view the financial offer as a trick or treat. As to be expected, many immediately questioned the intent of the contribution in light of their understanding of the Koch brothers. Others took a more thoughtful stance due to the perilous scenario facing many of these higher ed institutions. “

While keeping a watchful eye on developments that led to the eventual acceptance of the money by UNCF, I thought about atheist groups that each year extend an olive branch of charitable giving to both Christian and secular organizations during the holiday season, only to have their efforts of generosity rebuffed. “Will this take on a similar path?” I thought. Thankfully for the future of our nation’s historical black colleges, it didn’t.

Common Ground

As I see it, this bold and controversial move by the Koch brothers – to open their wallets for a community with whom their reputation is generally questioned – symbolizes the brothers’ lifelong quest to transform the shape of American politics. Some have argued that their intentions reflect a tit-for-tat proposition: black colleges are struggling for funds while conservatives are simultaneously looking for conservative black voters.

Despite a rush to judgment among many in the liberal camp, the Kochs have shown a willingness to establish some pebbles of common ground with the Democratic establishment. In a surprising development which supports this point, Koch Industries is championing support for an Obama-backed congressional initiative to address the problems of the multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex; one replete with massive incarceration rates fueled largely by an ineffective and costly war on drugs. This bipartisan push for sentencing reform came about after a meeting this year between one of the President’s most trusted advisors and the top legal counsel for the Koch empire. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this recent detente is that it lays the groundwork for exploring one of the most pernicious policy issues impacting America today, namely the disproportionate incarceration rate of African-American in the prison system.

The narrative being created here is an interesting one, given the prevailing philosophical divide between black liberalism and the conservative views that the Koch brothers espouse. Nevertheless, it signifies a step in the right direction with the two sides coming together around areas of agreement, rather than digging in their heels over points of conflict.

Michael Scott is a independent journalist focusing on the intersection between free markets and economic freedom. He can be reached on Twitter @biz_michael

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