Politics and Power: Securing Resources for Black Study

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”

Lecture Hall (Flickr: Kai Schreiber)

Getting clear about the politics of funding in Black Study

The domination of corporate interests in United States colleges and universities in today’s academy is an unmitigated fact. This is quite evident in the politics of funding, especially as it relates to the funding for research (or lack thereof) in Black Study. Research dollars are funneled into select areas based on corporate interests of the larger society and in higher education. Big Pharma is a case in point: this industry pours astronomical sums into laboratory research, especially in the sciences. Here, the biotech and pharmaceutical industries loom large. Thus, the neoliberal university, private or public, is articulated as a private rather than a public good. This is the corporate model. The neoliberal academy means the defunding of public education, corporate-friendly funding for free enterprise research, and transforming students into consumers with exorbitant rates of loan debt. On this model, the university effectively becomes a corporation. The increasingly intimate connection between corporate funding and academic research speaks to the commodification of knowledge and means the absorption of Black Studies/Black Study into the corporate capitalist logic of the academy. This must be resisted.

Historical Groundings: Black Study, Black Studies, and the Imprint of Corporate Philanthropy

Contemporary Black Studies emerged in the context of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Catalyzed by Black revolts in the United States and internationally, Black student activists made an imperative of decolonizing knowledge. Not as visible was the thorny issue of whose money shaped the field and how scholars invested in Black Study and/or trained in Black Studies would find funding for research. Given this, we must be clear about the historical groundings of money and politics in Black Study and the field of Black Studies. Looming large in this history are foundations such as Ford. Karen Ferguson’s Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism, among several other texts, makes a compelling case for the outside role of the Ford Foundation in the pacification of Black radicalism. Ferguson articulates several critical points, including that when McGeorge Bundy became President of the Foundation in 1967 during the Black Power era, he articulated a strategy to infuse an assimilationist ethic into Black rebellion.

For the Ford Foundation, the point was not to transform the society generally, and Black life particularly, as the radical student and community activists demanded. Rather, the goal was the one Bundy helped to shape: Ford centered the strategy of catalyzing individual social mobility and “assimilation into the mainstream.” The big financial coffers of the Ford Foundation under Bundy’s leadership played a key role in this effort. By 1980 Franklin Thomas would become the Foundation’s first Black president, replacing Bundy but moving in accord with this reformist vision of social change. Thomas’ appointment, of course, would continue the social mobility case and would express Black Power as a moderate agenda. For the field of Black Studies, the Ford Foundation funded the move away from radical political change connecting the field to community transformation by lifting up mainstream institutionalization.

The corporatization of the university is the current expression of a neoliberal agenda. This reality requires us to interrogate how funding is possible for Black Study and in Black Studies without losing its transformational aims. Clearly, radical Black Study does not fit the neoliberal institutional bill.

Where to Go from Here?  The Collaborative Funding Model

When Black Studies challenged the academy to be meaningfully engaged with communities, this was a radical charge impacting Black student activists in multiple institutionseven those in the Ivy League. The students involved in the Third World Strike at San Francisco State in 1968 and 1969 understood all too clearly that the academy was deeply complicit in the perpetuation of racism. Indeed, the ivory tower, especially elite private colleges, selective “public” universities, and the Ivies, in their very structure, represented what most needed to be changed in US society: exclusion, elitism, sexism, and racism. These lessons explain much of what we’re facing today. The dates are different, but the structure of power remains in place. The call for change today impacts both scholarship and activism and certainly funding. In fact, scholarship is always political in one way or another, supporting one set of interests or another, and we must name and understand how the work we must do, the scholarship that is demanded, is shaped in this context. Funding does not flow freely to oppositional scholarship in this environment.

Of the participatory scholarship which undergirds some of the oppositional scholarship the current period demands, organizer and organic intellectual Emery Wright of Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide, shares his insights on university/community participatory research and the research we must do for social change.  The excerpt below is from The Critical Classroom volume:

I think that the problem with scholar-activist and community relationships is that too many times there’s not a process, an intentional process to unpack a lot of power and privilege so it just plays itself out in the way that oppression re-enforces power differences.

You have two different groups of people with very different experiences. You have with scholars, people who have the time and experience and skill of looking at political theory in a way that we might not know because of lack of time or even the learning of how to use political theory. To bring those two experiences together could be a very powerful thing and is a very necessary thing. The issue is how to do it in a way that doesn’t play out power and privilege in the way that it has in our country and throughout our history. (13)

Building collective work and funding is at the heart of what we must do. Organizing cooperative centers for Black Study is critical. Some of this work is being done by scholars associated, for example, with The Black Midwest Initiative at the University of Minnesota, Department of African American & African Studies. Dr. Terrion Williamson founded and leads the initiative with a cross section of graduate students and faculty. The idea is that funding and resources are shared and obtained collectively. Common work is engaged around the history, culture, and social realities of Black life in the Midwest (An upcoming October conference organized by the Initiative is titled “Blacks in the Middle”). This means that Black Study, research, funding, and struggle are done collectively and synergistically. There are a handful of funding sources such as fellowships and resources from progressive foundations and organizations such as The Open Society, Headwaters, and The National Association of Black Studies (to name a few) that support efforts to move beyond the neoliberal funding machine.

Given the power and politics of funding Black Study, we must shift the treacherous terrain on which we travel, developing creative and collaborative resources to do the work we must do for transformational scholarship.

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Rose M. Brewer

Rose M. Brewer is an activist scholar and The Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor and past chairperson of the Department of African American & African Studies, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Brewer publishes extensively on Black feminism, political economy, social movements, race, class, gender, and social change. Her books include Rod Bush: Lessons of a Radical Black Scholar (Ahead Publishing, 2019), The U.S. Social Forum: Perspectives of a Movement (Changemaker Publications, 2010), and several other co-edited volumes. Follow her on Twitter @Rose_Brewer.