February 17, 2017; Quartz India
An article in Quartz India draws attention to the ethical use of money earned from an “unethical source.” Pondering on the nature of “capital production through time”, we are reminded that “the node of colonial capitalism will appear in almost every chain of wealth creation.” Higher education is one link on this chain.
Quartz examines this link through the lens of MIT professor Craig Steven Wilder. Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy exposed how the very foundations of major American universities are deeply “rooted in the barbaric slave trade.” As Quartz puts it, “Wilder calls the 18th-century American academy the third pillar of a civilization based on bondage, along with the church and state.” Wilder observes that many presidents of schools like Harvard, Yale, and Brown “were sons or sons-in-law of merchant traders and themselves owned slaves.”
The colonial academy (which included Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Rutgers and more) not only defended slavery (preaching racial sciences) but also benefited from it. Many of their founding trustees themselves owned slaves and relied on plantation wealth from the southern states of the U.S. where, in pre-civil war America, slavery was the norm. Harvard, Yale, and Brown continued for a long time to be powerful institutional forces in evangelizing Native Americans and later were significant beneficiaries of the slave trade. This continued even after 1808 when the import of African slaves was made illegal…Columbia, Princeton, and Yale also opposed the abolition movement.
Quartz draws special attention to Yale University. There’s a little irony to the recent renaming of Yale’s Calhoun College due to protests about John Calhoun’s connections to slavery, in that Elihu Yale, the university’s namesake, was himself a notorious 17th-century slave trader. Yale was the first president of Fort Saint George, the British East India Company’s post in Madras (now known as Chennai), South India. He “amassed an enormous fortune, mostly through rampant illegal profiteering.” He had also “taken advantage” of a famine situation in the region that led to a surplus of labor by shipping off hundreds of slaves to the Atlantic English colony of St. Helena. Mandating that every Europe-bound vessel carry “at least ten slaves,” Yale was paramount in orchestrating the slave trade “from Madagascar to Sumatra, and grew rich from its spoils.”
The Hartford Courant reported that Julia Adams, Calhoun’s head of house, said there was a “spontaneous outpouring of delighted shouts” after Yale made the decision to rename Calhoun after Grace Murray Hopper. Yale News describes the new namesake as a “trailblazing computer scientist who also served as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.”
The name change is undoubtedly a very positive step. Yet, Quartz asks good questions regarding celebrating the present. After all, “does benefitting from these universities implicate us in their past deeds?” Many of us struggle as we question to what extent a funding source colors the capital permanently. This leads to an overarching question: “Must a society deny charity because a source is tainted?” Well, of course it should— shouldn’t it? Is the answer really more complex than it should be?
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Our sector is no stranger to contradictions and controversy. We can all most likely come up with names of organizations that appear to look the other way. Thank goodness for better moments, though. For instance, Quartz points out how in 2015, the British Royal Opera House turned down very generous donations from British Petroleum (BP). When social consciousness faces off against corporate capitalism under any guise of philanthropy, we celebrate the moment. Still, in many ways, it’s a matter of context.
Can we [often] decline a much-needed donation to government orphanages from BP? Alternatively, how many who would accept money for educating Dalit girls in Indian villages from a corrupt politician would be comfortable if the politician has several rape charges against him?
[Also], older events do not look as bad as today’s. Otherwise, would the Royal Opera not have attracted such cultural boycotts if it was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation instead, despite the foundation’s unclean history funding Germany’s eugenics research used by the Nazis? Or what justifies our celebration of receiving a Rhodes scholarship but disgust at the thought of any, say (hypothetically) Trump scholarship?
That being said, we can all appreciate the way Quartz India attempts to draw better focus to the capitalism-versus-philanthropy paradox.
We decry corporations’ attempts to “buy” the legitimacy they don’t deserve. But there are complexities in excavating a universal morality. It is nearly impossible to locate capital whose sources are unalloyed with some unethical activity. The vast de-territorialized machinery of capital circulation in today’s society makes it inevitably colored with some unethicality.
There is a lot of work to be done. Perhaps Quartz India is right to advocate for the development of corporate philanthropy into a more theoretical, philosophical context. Maybe doing so can evolve the landscape across sectors and help us all break free from the dark histories that may lurk behind our more notable institutions.—Noreen Ohlrich