Robert Smith’s Gift Is More Generous Than His Vision

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MAY 19: Robert F. Smith gives the commencement address during the Morehouse College 135th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
Robert F. Smith gives the commencement address during the Morehouse College 135th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Private equity billionaire Robert F. Smith announced on Sunday that he would pay off the student loan debt belonging to the entire Morehouse College class of 2019. His decision was as unprecedented as it was generous: By aiding nearly 400 young men at an estimated value of $40 million, his donation is the biggest single gift in the school’s 152-year history.

Morehouse is a historically-black institution and Smith is America’s richest black man. Their confluence is no accident. Smith said in his speech that he “revered” Morehouse men because they “understand the power of education and the responsibility that comes with it.” He framed his gift as exemplifying that tradition — the idea that black people are the products of black communities that invested in them and so are duty-bound to invest in others.

And Smith sees few limits to the potential of such investments. As the shock of his announcement and the applause that greeted it subsided, he closed his speech with a distillation of its theme. “I want my class to look at these alumnus, these beautiful Morehouse brothers, and let’s make sure that every class has the same opportunity going forward,” he said. “Because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American Dream.”

The refrain “you are enough” is one of Smith’s go-tos and was the basis for his 2015 commencement speech at American University as well. But at Morehouse, it assumed the weight and significance of a blueprint for racial uplift. In the vein of the black conservative tradition exemplified by Booker T. Washington, Smith’s address was shot through with endorsements of black capitalism, the notion that having a sustained stake in American society means being economically self-sufficient. “Success is only real if our community is protected, our potential is realized, and if our most valuable assets — our people — find strength in owning the businesses that provide economic stability in our community,” Smith said.

It is an outlook as old as it is dubious. Several commenters, including Senator Bernie Sanders and writer Anand Giridharadas, have praised Smith’s generosity while maintaining that its necessity stems from policy failures. Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed legislation accordingly that would eliminate student debt for most borrowers. And as Giridharadas points out, Smith’s philanthropy comes with a caveat: That despite his investment in this tiny subset of the borrower population, his opposition to closing tax loopholes for phenomenally-wealthy people like himself indicates a lack of interest in systemic change that could generate enough money to make college free for everybody — a great way, in Smith’s words, to “make sure that every class has the same opportunity going forward.”

But equally suspect is the notion that overcoming racism is a matter of personal resolve or communal resilience. Smith is versed in the history of black underdevelopment in the United States, from the reneged-upon promise of land to freed slaves to the denial of New Deal benefits to black domestics and farm workers. He recognizes, too, that he is a product of both extraordinary government investment and extraordinary privilege: Respectively, a bussing program that sent children from his black neighborhood in Denver to a predominantly-white school across town, and the capital that came with being among the fourth generation in his family to attend college.

Both are historical aberrations for black people that by chance produced one of the few black multi-billionaires. Smith should know as well as anybody that whether black people are “enough” is besides the point. As long as racism exists, we never will be. That is because racism is an ideology that ascribes inequality to the fiction of race. It does not restrict black people because we do not realize our capacity to overcome it. It holds us back because its existence requires that we be held back, and then insists that our lag is an innate feature of our blackness. Smith’s counsel — that “racism is like gravity: you gotta keep pushing against it without spending too much time thinking about it” — lets racism off the hook for the inequality it sustains, without meaningfully undermining it.

This is not to say that black people cannot thrive in a racist society. Smith himself is an example to the contrary. It does mean that the median black American cannot be equal to the median white American in either wealth or social standing using the roadmap that Smith provided on Sunday. It is one thing — and not a bad thing — to give individuals a chance to build wealth. But it is another to insist that the system which sustains wealth inequality at all be undone. The central metaphor of Smith’s speech was Bus No. 13, which extracted him from his segregated environs as a child. In his telling, it represents both his generosity toward the Morehouse graduates and that which he expects them to “pay forward.” He asks of them: Who will you bring onto your Bus No. 13? Broadly speaking, this is meant to encourage them to aim high and then use their success to bring others with them.

The problem with this plan — absent policy interventions of the type suggested by Giridharadas and Warren — is that it requires these graduates to be both successful and philanthropic. Success is a worthy goal, but not one whose fulfillment should dictate outcomes for black people. Smith’s financial launchpad will ensure that 396 Morehouse men enter the job market with a stability that should be their right. But it should be others’ as well — even the less accomplished. “The opportunity for access should be determined only by the fierceness of your intellect and the courage of your creativity,” Smith said. Yet to concede that inequality should be dictated by one’s purported worthiness rather than racism is to concede inequality nonetheless.

It need not be so. Nor is this observation meant to disparage the value of Smith’s gift. It is meant only to suggest that charity is not a route to a just society. A vision of black prosperity rooted in the willingness of prosperous black people to uplift the rest guarantees one outcome: a society where black prosperity relies on the pre-existence of prosperous black people. It is a society where solutions to the inequality caused by racism is shouldered by its victims rather than its perpetrators. It is a surefire way to foster resilience and innovation among the downtrodden. But it is not a counterweight to the racism that caused their plight in the first place.

Smith’s Morehouse Gift Is More Generous Than His Vision