As we write this column, our University prepares to honor 50 years of black undergraduate presence at tomorrow’s Founder’s Day Convocation. On the same day, President Brodhead plans to take a proposal for investment responsibility to the Board of Trustees that leaves out transparency. While these events appear unrelated, turning to the history of investment responsibility illuminates important connections.
In 1688, Francis Daniel Pastorius drafted the Germantown Quaker Petition against Slavery, the first American document to call for the abolition of the slave trade. Pastorius and fellow Quakers refused to engage in slavery, citing the Bible’s Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Historians of investment responsibility cite the Quaker abolitionists as one of the first examples of ethical investment advocacy in the United States. Refusing to see their fellow brothers and sisters reduced to pure profit for slave-owners, the Quakers made a powerful argument for considering the ethical impact of money.
On April 3, 1968, in the last speech before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly of investment advocacy as the path to social justice. Acknowledging that “Individually, we are poor people,” King noted that “the American Negro collectivity is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than 30 billion dollars a year, which is more than all the exports of the United States… That’s power right there.”
King called on civil rights activists to “anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal” and “to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country” and tell them to “make the first item on your agenda—fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned.”
Fast forward 20 years and student divestment campaigns against the South African apartheid regime sweep American campuses. Over 100 universities divested from companies operating in apartheid South Africa, with the University of California system authorizing a staggering $3 billion divestment. In 1986, Duke’s own Board of Trustees voted 21-3 to divest.
In 1994, anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president, and he cited divestment as a key factor in toppling the apartheid government.
Speaking at a 2013 press conference in Senegal, President Barack Obama said “My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College… I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979-80, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa. I got involved in the divestment campaign.”
Historically, the resonance of investment responsibility activism and social justice is clear. Some may wonder how the history of a supposedly distant past connects to today’s issues.
Investment Responsibility Today
President Obama has also acknowledged investment responsibility as an important strategy in the fight against climate change and environmental racism. In a major climate change speech to Georgetown students, President Obama said he was there “to enlist [our] generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a global leader in the fight against climate change…Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
With much of the investment responsibility focus in recent years on climate change, it is important to recognize that environmental injustice intersects again with racial injustice.
Scientific American reports that a 2012 NAACP study found our nation’s coal plants disproportionately pollute communities of color and low-income. Of America’s 378 coal-fired power plants, 75 received a failing grade and were found “responsible for a heavy pollution burden.” Predictably, “the four million people living near those 75 ‘failing’ plants are even poorer and more isolated communities of color. The average per capita income within three miles of the 75 failing plants is $17,500 and nearly 53 percent of the people are minorities.”
Moving Duke Forward
It should come as no surprise that in 2013 students have reassembled to ensure that Duke's legacy of responsible investment remains intact. With programs like DukeEngage and aims for the DukeForward campaign that encourage us to “activate our power for the world,” Duke has become a place that prides itself on using its resources for the betterment of society.
But how can we be sure that Duke is fulfilling that commitment if we are kept in the dark about where Duke invests?
We stand in support of DukeOpen because we love Duke and we appreciate our history. Most importantly, we understand that it is this history, which is deeply rooted in service to society, that instructs us to be engaged, critical and transparent.
Marcus Benning is a Trinity senior and the President of the Black Student Alliance. Bobo Bose-Kolanu is a second-year graduate student and a founding member of DukeOpen.