Though the outsized influence of wealthy conservative donors like the Koch brothers tend to dominate debates about the role of money in politics, a new report indicates progressives now appear to have a fundraising advantage. According to the Sunlight Foundation, the top donors to super PACs for the past year have leaned progressive. But none of the top donors are women or minorities.
While increasing the number of women who are major political donors has become more of a priority for both Republicans and Democrats in recent years, there’s been less focus on the importance of increasing the number of people of color who give in large amounts to political causes—even though super PACs are increasingly becoming the great influencers in our political process, whether we like it or not.
I certainly don’t consider this ideal for democracy, but they’re a fact of life, and not treating super PACs as a priority is like playing in only half of a Super Bowl and surrendering the rest of the game to the other team. Which is why instead of merely focusing on increasing voter turnout among African Americans, we should also be encouraging more wealthy African Americans to become major players in America’s fundraising game.
To clarify, plenty of wealthy black Americans make political donations. Plenty attend political fundraisers, perform at them and host them. Earlier this week, Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes hosted a fundraiser headlined by President Barack Obama and attended by Scandal’s star, Kerry Washington. But while the amounts raised at events like this are certainly significant—the cheapest tickets were $1,000, and the maximum amount an individual can donate to a political party is $32,400—the sum an individual can give to a super PAC is limitless.
Comedian Bill Maher gave $1 million to a progressive super PAC in 2012. That same year, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson gave a whopping $30 million to super PACs benefiting Republicans and nearly as much four years earlier. So where are the black Sheldon Adelsons?
We know that the black community overall has substantially less wealth than whites, but there are plenty of wealthy—even extremely wealthy—African Americans. Before the last presidential election, actor Morgan Freeman gave $1 million to a pro-Obama super PAC, but there are many more successful African Americans who could join him if they wanted to. And if more of us became seriously engaged in political giving that could be a game changer.
Nearly all of the highest-paid players in the NBA are black. The 50th highest-paid player earns more than $11 million annually, and that’s not including endorsements. I’ve never had that kind of money myself, but I’d like to think that if I did, I wouldn’t find it hard to let go of a few million for causes I believe in.
One analysis of political donations during the 2012 cycle found athletes less engaged in terms of contributions than those in the corporate sector. And it’s possible that some athletes are following the Michael Jordan example. He famously stayed out of politics for most of his career, reportedly saying, “Republicans buy shoes, too”—an apparent reference to his Nike deal. That’s a cute quote, but I’m more of a fan of another one, which has been attributed to everyone from Malcolm X to Alexander Hamilton: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
The bottom line? More wealthy African Americans need to be willing to take a stand on issues they care about. That includes opening their wallets.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.