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by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Dr. Dre is one of the most successful entertainers in history, earning hundreds of millions of dollars by making great music. Much of this music moves because he has been able to successfully package urban/black culture, selling it to audiences around the world. During a recent public debate I had at Brown University with Michael Eric Dyson over the impact of violent hip-hop, I can say that I gave Dr. Dre an admittedly questionable pass. While he and NWA are certainly the founders of “gangsta” rap that glorifies violence in urban communities, their music possessed a kind of social conscience that is rarely seen in the bastardized, toxic, corporate-sponsored, genocidal brainwashing that we hear being promoted by white-owned companies like BET today.
But despite the fact that Dre’s messages are not as harmful as what we’re seeing a generation later, it cannot be denied that he is the grandfather of much of the music that we’re hearing on the radio right now. The black community has paid a huge price for supporting Dr. Dre in his quest to become the first hip-hop billionaire, there’s no question about that. So, what we might ask those who readily use their blackness for profit is the following: What are you giving back to those who gave you so much?
It’s hard to know exactly what Dr. Dre is doing for the black community, but we all know where he made his greatest gift. Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine recently announced a whopping $70 million dollar donation to USC to create a new degree. The program is one that pulls together liberal arts, graphic arts, business, music and technology. Dr. Dre’s donation is the largest ever given by any African American in history, and oddly enough, the money is going into the hands of rich white people.
As I prepared to give the commencement address at Simmons College, a growing HBCU in Kentucky with a very rich history, I heard a story about a group of ex-slaves who pooled their money to buy four acres of land so they could educate future generations. Without sacrifices like these, the school would not be giving so much to the community today. The school’s extraordinary president, Dr. Kevin Cosby, has not taken a paycheck for his work for the last eight years and readily speaks of how the school is located in one of the poorest districts in America. He sees his contribution as a chance to lift up the community around him, rather than simply milk the community’s resources.
If I could transplant Dr. Cosby’s brain into Dr. Dre’s body, black America would be changed forever. Also, had those ex-slaves been naive enough to give all of their money to the big white university down the street, the impact of their contribution would be minimal at best. One of the reasons that black Americans struggle financially is because we’ve been locked out of economic opportunities, while massive institutions like USC hoard the wealth to protect their own (take a look at the very low percentage of African Americans they hire or admit as non-athletic students). Simultaneously, when we do have access to the resources necessary to begin our building process, we don’t feel inclined to support those who look like us. That’s one key difference between the black and the Jewish communities (as Min. Louis Farrakhan pointed out at our New Paradigm forum last year): They teach their children to generously target their resources to protect them against oppression.
Some may argue that Dr. Dre can do whatever he wants with his money, and this point is valid: No one has the right to tell any of us what to do – a child has no obligation to care about his mother, a husband has no real obligation to provide for his wife, a father has no obligation to protect his children, the list goes on and on. But the truth is that if you choose not to care about your community, then don’t expect your community to care about you. Black people have always been incredibly loyal and supportive of Dr. Dre, particularly those who made him the defacto King of Compton and Long Beach. It would seem that his greatest economic gift should go to them instead.
Another person who had something to say about the gift is Dillard University president, Walter M. Kimbrough. Dr. Kimbrough was once the youngest president of any HBCU in the country and proudly considers himself to be a part of the hip-hop generation. In an op-ed in the LA Times, Kimbrough openly asks Dre why he chose to give so much money to USC, as opposed to one of the struggling HBCUs that really could have used those resources:
I understood their need to build a pool of skilled talent. But why at USC? Iovine’s daughter is an alum, sure. And he just gave its commencement address. Andre Young — before he was Dr. Dre — grew up in nearby Compton, where he rose to fame as part of the rap group N.W.A. The Beats headquarters are on L.A.’s Westside.
Still, what if Dre had given $35 million — his half of the USC gift and about 10% of his wealth, according to a Forbes estimate — to an institution that enrolls the very people who supported his career from the beginning? An institution where the majority of students are low-income? A place where $35 million would represent a truly transformational gift?
Dr. Kimbrough is absolutely correct. USC’s endowment is over $3.5 billion, which gives this school more money than every single HBCU in America combined (please re-read that last sentence very carefully). Even more stunning is that the school’s endowment isn’t even in the top 20 in the nation. The point here, and I hope Dr. Dre understands this, is that white people have plenty of money and they aren’t going to use that money to help people who look like you. They don’t exactly need black people making donations, since they’ve already earned over a billion dollars from their African American athletes, many of whom have mothers who can’t even pay the rent.
Even worse is that much of this wealth was accumulated on the backs of slaves and black people who were locked out of the economic system. Schools like USC make it diffcult for black students to gain admission and even more difficult for black faculty to get jobs. The university sits down the street from South Central Los Angeles, a virtual war zone where prisons and funeral homes get rich from all the young black men being fed into the prison industrial complex. USC doesn’t use many of its resources to help these individuals, it simply uses Dr. Dre’s money to build higher walls so they can protect the rich white kids from the scary black ones.
Black students at USC protest police harassment during a recent party on campus
I wonder if Dr. Dre knows that not only does USC admit very few black students, but the ones who are there are subject to serious racism and racial profiling. During a recent campus party, the LAPD sent over 70 police officers in riot gear with a helicopter to break up the party after noise complaints. All the while, the white kids were partying up in their fraternity houses without so much as a peep from the police.
Additionally, for Dr. Dre, his $35 million dollar donation (half of the $70 million he is sharing with Iovin) is merely a drop in the bucket for a school like USC that is sitting on an amount of money that no HBCU will have for at least another 100 years. USC shed no tears when Dr. Dre’s baby brother was a victim of the violence that has poisoned the black community. They did nothing when his son died from an overdose on the drugs that were dropped into black communities in the 1980s. HBCUs have scholars working to solve these problems, and thousands of students who will graduate to fight for black America. USC does NOT. Other than a token scholar here or there, USC’s faculty are working to solve problems for white people, not black ones. That’s just a fact.
Dr. Kimbrough goes even further to explain why USC was a questionable donation target for someone who grew up as a struggling black kid in South Central Los Angeles.
USC is a great institution, no question. But it has a $3.5-billion endowment, the 21st largest in the nation and much more than every black college — combined. Less than 20% of USC’s student body qualifies for federal Pell Grants, given to students from low-income families, compared with two-thirds of those enrolled at black colleges. USC has also seen a steady decrease in black student enrollment, which is now below 5%.
A new report on black male athletes and racial inequities shows that only 2.2% of USC undergrads are black men, compared with 56% of its football and basketball teams, one of the largest disparities in the nation. And given USC’s $45,602 tuition next year, I’m confident Dre could have sponsored multiple full-ride scholarships to private black colleges for the cost of one at USC.
Dr. Kimbrough made a courageous decision to write this article. There are some who might criticize him as a “hater” or argue with his right to question what Dr. Dre does with his money. But I’m not talking to those people right now. I’m actually speaking to those who understand that the circle of economic life in any community is a recursive process, in which all who benefit are expected to contribute. When a corporation moves into a city and extracts income from that city, it is expected to give back to the city in tax revenues, jobs and charitable contributions. So, when rappers soak up resources by promoting harmful, violent and even buffoonish stereotypes of black men and women to the world (the kind that may make police see black men as threats), they too should be expected to give something to the community from which they’ve taken so much.
We have to look at the facts: Dr. Dre, a man who has made hundreds of millions of dollars selling back urban culture to the world has made his largest donation to a predominately white university that doesn’t need the money and rarely admits black students unless they play a sport. I love Dr. Dre’s music, but I am dying to ask my good brother, “What were you thinking?”
By the way, as schools like USC have gotten rich from black athletes, HBCUs can barely pay the bills. All the while, almost none of this money is returned to the black community, and multi-million dollar USC athletes like Reggie Bush have their integrity questioned for receiving a few hundred dollars under the table. The fact is that these schools rob black people blind, don’t give hardly anything to the black community, and laugh at the fact that we are ridiculous enough to turn around and give money back. If I were the president of USC, I’d be giggling under my breath and wondering how a group of people can have such little respect for themselves.
This incident reminds me of a famous quote by the late Malcolm X. He’s speaking about the Democratic Party, but the quote is applicable to any group or organization that we support without demanding reciprocity from that institution. Here’s what he said:
“You put them first and they put you last. ‘Cause you’re a chump. A political chump!…Any time you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government, and that party can’t keep the promise that it made to you during election time, and you are dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that party, you’re not only a chump but you’re a traitor to your race.”
So, with that being said, we can ask: We know what the black community has done for Dr. Dre. We know what Dr. Dre has done for USC. But what has USC done for the community that built Dr. Dre’s entire career? I would argue that the answer to this question is self-explanatory. Giving your all to any institution or organization without demanding reciprocity is symptomatic of low self-esteem. So, when African Americans support entertainers without expecting these entertainers to reciprocate, it is a reminder that, deep down, we don’t believe that we deserve to be respected.
Dr. Dre is a brilliant producer, but this move just doesn’t make any sense. I hope he has something to say, and I applaud Dr. Kimbrough for being one of the few campus presidents with the courage to engage in such an honest and necessary dialogue. Otherwise, to black people who have enough sense to understand what I’m saying in this article, let’s please maintain at least enough self-respect to support our own community before we start transferring our wealth into the hands of those who are living off of the money stolen from our ancestors. Our children need love too.