I have admired Black billionaire Robert Smith since I first discovered him years ago, long before he transformed the lives of an entire graduating class from Morehouse College, the only all male historically Black college. I thought highly of Smith when he contributed to Carnegie Hall and Cornell University. I even thought of traveling to Dallas or anywhere that I might meet him to share ideas about investing in HBCUs. I was so proud when the wealthiest Black man in America retired the debt of so many promising young men. The act established Smith as a preeminent thought leader of our time.
The primary focus of my work with the HBCU Green Fund is to advocate for investment in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), particularly from well-endowed institutions that benefitted from slavery and others seeking social impact. We had in mind a one percent allocation but Robert Smith’s call for a 2% solution sent ripples, if not shock waves, through the world of wealth. His call to peers challenged the wealthy and validated efforts to address issues related to equity. What are we to think now that the government is after our hero for taxes?
There are far too many examples of government attacks on Black leadership to assign blame or criminality based upon an accusation. It feels like any effort by Black people to empower Black people by building Black wealth is undermined with an assault upon the credibility of the leadership. This time Black America must rally.
We don’t need to know whether the taxes were intentionally avoided or merely a function of obscure systems set up for the uber rich. It matters that some of his people may have been stealing and still get immunity to turn against him. It matters most that he is a Black man that learned the game, played it well, won and gave to Black America. Above all, he challenged others to follow his lead.
The generosity of Smith’s charity certainly establishes him as a generous philanthropist. In a nation that rewards individuals that avoid taxes with bankruptcies, permits a president to serve without ever showing his taxes, and when he is found guilty of anti-money laundering violations and fraud in his self-branded university and foundation, he is simply required to pay a fine, clearly there is a financial remedy for any financial indiscretion. What’s good for one billionaire is good for another.
Every family that benefitted from the Smith gift needs to speak up and the graduates that had their debt paid must shout. We cannot let a business transaction or tax situation change our regard for his exceptional leadership. We must press for a speedy and acceptable resolution determined largely by Robert Smith and then we must listen for the lesson that this episode will teach. We must sing Smiths praises for what he has already done for Black men, Black colleges, and Black America. We cannot permit targeting by the government to define our heroes. Let it be known that we stand united in support of Robert Smith.
Felicia M. Davis
Felicia is director of the HBCU Green Fund
and a Howard University Graduate.