In the “afterglow” of the Fourth of You Lie, I am flipping through an African American magazine, enjoying the content, but looking for the “bite.” For how can you not bite, when you look at the space in which African American people occupy? Our middle class is growing, but fragile. The level of poverty among African Americans has hardly changed in the past decade. Unemployment rates for African Americans remain high, despite talk of economic “recovery.” But too many of our organizations have little bark, and even less bite.

Have we been co-opted by the organizations that support us, the advertisers that fund our organizations, efforts, and magazines? To some extent, advertisers and others are working in their own best interest, targeting people who will purchase their products. From hair products to banks, it makes sense for organizations to reach out to the African American community. At the same time, is there a price we pay for patronage?

I am stepping onto shaky ground, when I raise this point. My own organization, Economic Education, seeks contracts and grants to support efforts to engage in financial and economic literacy. Banks will be among my likely supporters. Will that muzzle me?

Can you accept money from banking institutions while criticizing redlining and the financial abuse of African Americans?, Will organizations shy away from you, when you simply tell the truth? Will support be withdrawn, either openly or subtly? Is there a space where African American leaders can speak without restraint?

I remember, years ago, speaking at a technology organization’s conference and earning a collective gasp of horror, when I spoke about the absence of African Americans in senior positions. After the speech and reception, the sister who had organized the event asked to speak with me privately.

“Everything you said was correct,” she said. “But this was not the place to say it.” She went on to share that she had suggested that I do a series of talks for the organization, and that while she could not rescind her own proposal, she would be tepid.

That’s just my experience, but I wonder how many others have cut and pasted their views to seek corporate support? The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, for example, was all set to give Donald Sterling a second lifetime achievement award because he’d donated a few dollars (reports range from $45,000 to $100,000) to the organization. After Sterling’s racist comments were blasted, the offer of the achievement award was rescinded. The controversy surrounding the potential award caused the Los Angeles leader of the NAACP, Leon Jenkins, to resign. There was no outcry when Sterling got the first award, although he was a well-known racist slumlord.

Is a slumlord’s support worth an NAACP lifetime achievement award? Are some of our organizations trading cash for honors and publicity? Or are we getting our earned sponsorships in exchange for our patronage? It is something to think about especially in light of the Koch Foundation’s recent support of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). While many in the HBCU universe are grateful for the contribution, others are repelled by it, to the point of declining the direct contribution to their schools.

When I was president of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (NANBPW), I was introduced to a corporate sponsor by one of my board members. Beforehand, I was asked to “tone it down” for fear that my abrasive style might turn the sponsor off. I sat for tea and bit my tongue so many times that I thought I’d find its tip floating in my tea. The result? A generous sponsorship and a hot, cleansing shower for me.

I am raising this question chafing at the paucity of independent and critical Black voices, understanding that too many are muted by the corporate support they receive. If voices are not muted, then the concern about support and challenging positions are certainly discussed behind closed doors. And the result? “We have to look into this matter. We need to study this a bit more.” In other words, we need to check with the folks who support us to make sure this is okay.

Without disparaging those organizations or individuals that depend on corporate support, I wonder if there is a way for progressive African Americans to support our own organizations, free and unfettered, with no fear of implicit or explicit censorship. Dr. Ron Daniels and the Institute for the Black World does some of this work, but they struggle for lack of financial support, relying on a few volunteers and underpaid friends who maintain the organization.

It is often said that we buy what we want and beg for what we need. We need independent Black voices. We need them, but will we pay for them?

Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and writer and president emerita of Bennett College for Women.

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