America's black colleges are struggling for funds. The Republican Party is struggling to attract black voters.
Enter a $25 million gift to the United Negro College Fund from the conservative Koch brothers, which has pitted the needs of black students against liberals' insistence that the Kochs are pursuing a racist political agenda.
Whether genuine philanthropy, political jujitsu or some of both, the gift sparked a debate that peaked when Lee Saunders, president of the powerful American Federation for State, County and Municipal Employees union, sent the UNCF a blistering letter ending the union's financial support.
Historically black colleges and universities have educated a huge percentage of black America. Today, HBCUs are facing unprecedented challenges: decreases in government funding, tougher parent loan eligibility, and the threat of losing even more federal aid based on low retention and graduation rates.
In this environment, how could the UNCF turn down $25 million — much of it earmarked for direct distribution to needy students?
"I can take their money and use it for good," said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University.
Kimbrough's historically black university has already received about $50,000 from the Kochs' UNCF gift, earmarked for students whose parents no longer qualify for federal PLUS loans.
Dillard is giving the money in increments of $2,000 to $5,000 to candidates such as an honor student whose single mother lost her job due to health issues. The student had been planning to sleep on classmates' couches because she didn't have money for room and board, Kimbrough said.
Kimbrough does not agree with much of the Kochs' political actions. But "I'll still fight for things important to the African-American community, and I'll use their money to do it," he said.
David and Charles Koch inherited an oil business from their engineer father and expanded it into the privately held Koch Industries, which had $115 billion in 2013 revenues, according to Forbes. They are reviled by liberals for donating hundreds of millions to conservative causes, and have been labeled as racists particularly for their support of laws that critics say make it harder for black people to vote.
"They are white supremacists . They are flooding our country with money," the activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte said last year.
A Koch spokesperson, Melissa Cohlmia, called Belafonte's remarks "false and reprehensible." She said the Kochs "have devoted their lives to advancing tolerance and a free society — where every individual is judged on his or her individual merits and they are free to make decisions about their lives."
The Kochs have black and white supporters who say their efforts to require voter ID have nothing to do with race, and everything to do with stopping rampant fraud at the polls. Democrats say fraud is minuscule and insignificant, and that the goal of voter ID is to suppress Democratic votes in poor areas, which are disproportionately black. And if the Kochs fund initiatives that unfairly keep black people from voting, Democrats say, that is racist.
As executive director of Color of Change, Rashad Robinson has battled organizations funded by the Kochs such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which led efforts nationwide to pass voter ID and "stand your ground" laws. Color of Change says 69 corporations have cut ties with ALEC due to their activism.
"Charity is not justice," Robinson said.
"Giving someone a check at the end of spending years putting in laws to suppress them is not justice. It's cover," he said. "It's maybe allowing the Kochs to sleep well at night."
Unlike union president Saunders, who criticized UNCF president Michael Lomax for accepting the $25 million and then speaking at a Koch conference, Robinson would not say the gift should have been declined. But he still found it "incredibly challenging."
"This money is just a drop in the bucket for the Kochs. This is money in the sofa," he said. "It will not help to shift or change the damage they do and continue to do."
The racism accusations rankle Armstrong Williams, a black conservative commentator and entrepreneur who graduated from historically black South Carolina State University. He noted that the Kochs have donated smaller amounts to the UNCF for the past decade, and have given to many historically white universities.
"If somebody asks them if they have ever given money to a black institution and they say no, that further cements the idea that they're racist. So how can they win?" Williams said.
"It sets an example for others to rise above partisanship to do things that empower black students," he said.
Some see the donation as an opportunity that extends beyond students who need money for school.
"One should not be subject to the simplicity of black and white arguments about this. It's become divisive, and it shouldn't be," said professor Eric Walters, a past president of the faculty senate at Howard University, where he studies neuroscience and molecular genetics.
Walters said the UNCF and HBCUs should use the spotlight of the Koch donation to start new research on the influence of money on politics: "Not for a political agenda, but for scholarship. To educate a Republican or a Democrat."
He also would like to see the HBCU community use this opportunity to generate dialogue about how the Kochs' wider agenda impacts black Americans — and to challenge others to donate as much as the Kochs.
If they do, Walters said, "you can leave the Koch brothers behind, black people."