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Mount Holyoke professor explores corporate support for Black culture — the benefits and the costs

Mount Holyoke College Sociology Professor Patricia Banks is out with a new book titled "Black Culture Inc.: How Ethnic Community Support Pays for Corporate America." Through her research, Banks explores how Black culture has been leveraged by corporate America.

In the book, Banks discusses how major corporations gave millions of dollars to diverse historic institutions, such as the Smithsonian Museum of African American History.

Patricia Banks, Mount Holyoke College professor: It's not only significant in that it's the first African American Museum on the National Mall, but it was also significant because of the fundraising. And there was a major fundraising effort and, with that, we did see many major companies contribute. And those contributions did help to put a spotlight on the museum. And then also the bigger issue of support for Black culture.

Michael Lyle Jr., NEPM: You note that corporations are providing unprecedented levels of support for Black cultural institutions. That gives the institutions money and what you describe as "diversity capital" for the companies. So can you describe what exactly that means?

So what do you mean by diversity capital is I referred to that as any cultural practices — such as philanthropy related to racial and ethnic minorities — that provide a benefit for organizations like companies. And so, when we think about diversity capital, what's happening is that companies are investing in this case in philanthropy related to Black cultural institutions. And it is an investment that provides them with this return, in that it helps for them to project an image that they value African Americans, that they value diversity, and that they value equity. And so they're able to project a positive racial image.

Patricia Banks is a professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
Courtesy
Patricia Banks is a professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

There's also, as you write, a potential downside here. Companies may be able to point to their donations to Black institutions to deflect criticism or distract from otherwise poor records on social justice issues. So can you give an example of when that has happened?

That's one of the important points that I make in "Black Culture, Inc." And what I describe is how, in many cases, it's a win-win. Companies are able to project a positive image. Recipients benefit, like Black museums, by getting the money that they need. The public benefits by having museums like the National Museum of African American History and Culture be built and maintained.

But there also can be, in some instances, a cost. This is most clearly illustrated in the chapter on the Cool Jazz Festival. Brendan Williamson Use the Kool Jazz Festival as a mechanism to promote their Kool line of tobacco products to African Americans. At that point in time, it was known that cigarettes were harmful to health. So in this case what we saw was in some ways the community benefiting, artists benefiting, clearly the company benefiting. But that benefit, you also have to weigh against the cost of cigarettes being promoted to the community.

And so that's an example where we see Black cultural patronage and ethnic community support more broadly having some costs associated with it.

Michael Lyle Jr. joined the New England Public Media news team in early 2019.