If AFSCME Breaks With Black Colleges Over Koch Money, It’s Not Being Principled, It’s Grandstanding

Activists hold a protest near the Manhattan apartment of billionaire and Republican financier David Koch on June 5, 2014, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a charity that serves veterans, based in my home state of Texas—where 23 percent of folks polled believe that President Barack Obama is Muslim—accepts a sizable donation from the Obama family. But after the Obamas’ donation becomes public, the charity winds up losing significant financial support from some of its conservative donors in Texas.

What would we say? We’d probably call that pretty unreasonable. We’d probably say that those who genuinely care about veterans should be able to put aside their political differences in the interest of what’s best for that charity and the people it serves. Right?


That hasn’t really happened—yet—but a very similar real-life situation has been unfolding. The Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries made a $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund. Yes, those Kochs.

And the UNCF—one of the best-known educational organizations in the black community—accepted, prompting criticism from a number of progressives for doing so. Most recently, the organization’s perceived coziness with the Koch brothers is costing it the longtime support of one of the country’s most influential unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.


But why?

In a letter to UNCF President Michael Lomax, Lee Saunders, AFSCME’s president, announced that his union is withdrawing its annual financial support from the UNCF as a result of actions that AFSCME considers “deeply hostile to the rights and dignity of public employees” and “a profound betrayal of the ideals of the civil rights movement.” Saunders cited not only the decision to take Koch money but also Lomax’s decision to speak at a summit hosted by the Koch brothers, writing, “Your appearance at the summit can only be interpreted as a sign of your personal support and the UNCF’s organizational support of the Koch brothers’ ideological program."


Saunders doesn’t mention what Lomax said at the Koch summit, or even what the topic of discussion was. If you take Saunders’ letter at face value, he took the position that if you don’t agree with someone politically, you shouldn’t attend their events or speak to them. Which is ridiculous—but shows just how intolerant those on the left are becoming, at the same time that they accuse the right of intolerance.

In recent years the Koch brothers have become Public Enemy No. 1 for unions. They’re credited with bankrolling many of the initiatives that have weakened organized labor, like their support for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who pushed to weaken the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions in Wisconsin, which subsequently became, in 2011, the site of some of the biggest union-related demonstrations in recent history.


But that has nothing to do with educating African-American students.

It seems to me that government and society would be better served if more people who disagreed spent more time together, not less.


If we start using politics as a litmus test in cases like this one, does that mean progressives should no longer stay in hospitals that Koch money helped fund? Ask MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, a frequent critic of the Koch brothers, who expressed gratitude for treatment he received in a medical facility they funded, saying, “You can be outraged by what the Koch brothers do with their money in politics and you can appreciate what they contribute to hospitals and medical research, and you can do that at the same time and still retain an ability to function.”

What’s particularly disappointing about Saunders’ position is that this is precisely the type of approach that many progressives have accused conservatives of using to ostracize the Obamas and ultimately paralyze Washington. It seems to me that government and society would be better served if more people who disagreed spent more time together, not less.


I may disagree with the Koch brothers on a number of issues, but one issue on which we seem to agree is the importance of educating communities of color. Graduation rates at HBCUs are lower than at other institutions of higher learning, with cost being cited as the primary barrier to completing a degree.

So why wouldn’t someone want the Kochs to devote more of their resources to this issue than to another issue on which they don’t agree with that person? Saunders might call this standing on principle, but it looks more like grandstanding. It should make all of us feel better about the UNCF to know that more kids will have a shot at an education because the organization chose to put the needs of college students ahead of the egos of a few activists.


Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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