That’s the right idea — and not just for Black people.
The United States is in the midst of a nonmilitary civil war — with the Republican side taking the most aggressive actions. As a survival strategy, many major institutions that cater to Trump voters or conservative power brokers can be expected to adopt Trumpian values, or at least not break too much from them. These institutions are going to become increasingly hostile to people such asHannah-Jones and practices such as teaching the United States’ racial history honestly and fully embracing transgender people.
But many institutions in the United States aren’t captured by or particularly accountable to Trumpian values. And that creates a big opportunity for them, and the rest of us, too. Obviously, every person wary of Trumpism can’t decamp to Howard. But in the era of a Trumpian Republican Party, institutions need to think of their role as not only serving out their traditional missions but also acting as bulwarks defending and promoting principles such as racial equality, democracy and evidence-based policymaking. People wary of Trumpism should particularly invest in these kinds of institutions. I am thinking in particular of at least six institutions.
Private colleges often do get some federal funds, so they are not totally insulated from Trump-style politics. But they aren’t as reliant on government money as public ones, and a select few, such as Harvard and Yale, hold tens of billions of dollars in wealth. That means that private colleges can confidently pursue goals and initiatives that diverge or are even in tension with the current Republican Party.
You saw an example of this early in the pandemic, with Johns Hopkins University offering reliable covid-19 data when Trump and others on his team were trying to downplay the virus. There is no reason a school such as Yale couldn’t, say, track police shootings of civilians to address similar government disinterest. Honest research about race and identity in particular must remain strong at private colleges, as Republicans seek to outlaw it in public universities.
Black-led churches, colleges and civil rights organizations
The alliance between Hannah-Jones, Howard and a group of donors and foundations was a great example of how people and organizations that are largely White-led (and thereby have most of the money in the United States) can support Black-led organizations and initiatives. Black-led organizations don’t have to change their missions or operating structures to emphasize racial equality and to avoid catering to the racist instincts of some politicians — they have been doing that for decades. And it’s not just that the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), Color of Change, the Ebenezer Baptist Church and other such organizations will defend the interests of Black people. Defending Black people nearly always coincides with defending the interests of other people of color, lower-income Americans of all races and others who face discrimination or marginalization. For example, if they are successful, the lawsuits that LDF is filing against GOP-passed voting laws will make it easier for everyone to vote, not just Black people.
Organizations such as the Ford Foundation, which donated to Howard as part of the funding for Hannah-Jones’s appointment there, already have a lot of money and independence. But during the Trump era they have often struggled to break from their preference for nonpartisanship or bipartisanship. These foundations need to get clear about how they want to change the United States — and then fund those efforts. If promoting democracy, education and racial equality means you end up funding projects mostly led by Democrats, that’s the fault of the current GOP, not the foundation world.
The news media
The last several years have shown how journalism can both defend and improve our democracy. It is hard to imagine our renewed emphasis on addressing racial inequality without the writings of Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Serwer and other journalists. News organizations were a major check on Trump’s autocratic tendencies. As I argued recently, the next phase for news organizations acting as pillars of our democracy is to forthrightly announce that goal. For example, the 19th, a publication founded last year that focuses on women and politics, lists its values on its website, such as “to advance human rights, civil rights, racial justice and gender equity.” More outlets should have such mission statements.
In Louisville, where I live, the Speed Art Museum created an exhibit this spring celebrating the life of Breonna Taylor, whose killing by police here drew national attention. It attracted a lot of Black visitors to a museum whose audience is usually overwhelmingly White. Museums in the United States often serve as playthings for rich White people, but they don’t have to. They could become places that host events and exhibits that bring together people of all walks of life to be educated in the values of a multiracial democracy.
Much of the economic research that has chronicled the inequality boom in the United States is taking place at the University of California at Berkeley. That work is evidence-based and factual but also breaks with conservative doctrines — so I would be worried if it were centered someplace where conservatives had the power to defund it. Institutions funded by the state government in blue states, and those governments themselves, are largely insulated from Trumpism. These states might elect a moderate Republican governor from time to time, but they are unlikely to have their legislature and governor’s office controlled by people who are going to try to defund research that they don’t like.
These states need to think of themselves as redoubts for our core values.
Finally, I should emphasize that my vision for these six kinds of institutions taking a bigger role and getting more support doesn’t mean that people should divest from institutions such as the University of North Carolina that are accountable to Trumpian politics. Hannah-Jones’s example is instructive here — she fought to get tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill and raise concerns about the influence of conservatives there before opting against coming to the school. It will be important to limit the capture of public K-12 schools, universities and other public institutions by Trump acolytes. But some of that capture is inevitable, as such conservatives already have so much power. So it is really necessary to have institutions that are on the right side of this civil war — and that can be open about that.