Taking Account of Race: A Philanthropic Imperative

President Obama’s election has unquestionably transformed discussions of race in the United States. At the recent Black Entertainment Television Honors Awards, Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina declared that now that an African-American man holds the most powerful position in the world, “Every child has lost every excuse” – presumably for failure or underperformance. Yet while the new President is a powerful role model for children of all races, racism and racial barriers remain with us. As President Obama himself acknowledged in his landmark Philadelphia speech last spring, these cannot be cast away by a single election, no matter how consequential. Like every sector in American society, philanthropy must look inward and examine how our internal structures and funding practices may perpetuate barriers to racial equity.


As the historic Presidential campaign was taking place, there was also a growing debate in philanthropy about how well our sector meets the needs of communities of colour. And we are entering a time in which governmental, particularly legislative, scrutiny of and pressure on philanthropy will only intensify. In tough economic times, a sector insulated from the tax base because it is thought to serve a public purpose is an obvious target, particularly when social need is acute. In addition, the political empowerment of African-American and Latino lawmakers is growing, and their mounting seniority in state houses and in Congress provides a powerful perch from which to raise questions about equity.


The first thing to be said is that philanthropy should welcome this scrutiny, not run from it. It is reasonable to raise the question of whether organisations enjoying a tax benefit should be more transparent about which communities are reflected in their grant making decisions.


When Handy Lindsey of the Field Foundation in Chicago accepted the James Joseph Award from the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) in 2003, he reminded his audience that in 1971 eight African-American leaders stood up at the annual meeting of the Council on Foundations to demand the inclusion of blacks on the slate of nominations. What a thrilling moment that must have been, and it’s hard to recall such a pointed and powerful disruption in the ranks of organised philanthropy since. Thirty years later, Lindsey told ABFE, “despite three decades of deliberative effort…we see the inconvenient truth: our field does not look the way it should. However intended, our practices result in exclusion.”


The demand for foundations to turn the mirror inward raised much debate last year when proposed California Assembly Bill 624, spurred by a series of reports from the Greenlining Institute, sought to require large foundations to report on the racial composition of their staffs, boards and grants. In April 2008 the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors released the study “Philanthropy In A Changing Society: Achieving Effectiveness Through Diversity,” which, using Council on Foundations data, reported that thirteen percent of all grantmaking boards, under 6 percent of CEOs and less than a quarter of all staff were people of colour.


These are important measures to look at, since who is at the table has a great deal to do with how the pie is divided. Virtually all foundations, including Atlantic, need to do much better in this respect. But even more critical is paying attention to where the money goes. According to the recent Foundation Center report, “Embracing Diversity,” focused on California foundation giving benefitting communities of colour, “by itself, the California Endowment accounted for more than half of all domestically focused grant dollars explicitly targeted to benefit populations of colour in 2005.” Some California foundation leaders argued that the benefit of a grant can be measured in more ways than merely counting the number of organisations it reaches, and indeed this is true. It may be reductionist, for example, to look only at whether organisations are led by, or predominantly serve, people of colour. Some organisations led by people of colour are ineffective and a waste of philanthropic dollars, and some predominantly white organisations do a very good job of strengthening education and jobs and health care in communities of colour. But examining the leadership and genuine base of an organisation is at least a good place to start a discussion of whether grant money goes to communities that need it most.


Some suggest that broad-based foundation initiatives, like those to reverse climate change or promote the arts, by definition benefit people of colour. But this misses the mark because many, if not most, racially-neutral programs don’t reach all people equally. Strategic, well-targeted, and culturally appropriate strategies are necessary to ensure inclusion. Some initiatives that appear to be racially neutral in fact reflect in their design a set of exclusionary choices. Take Social Security for example, the universal social insurance program in the United States. People often attribute the success of Social Security to the fact that people of all races and ethnicities, and at all income levels, have a stake in its strength. And yet the Social Security Act would not have passed in 1935 if Franklin Roosevelt had not conceded to racist Southern Democrats who insisted on the exclusion of domestic and agricultural workers. If one considers the racial and ethnic composition of domestic and agricultural workers then and now, one gets a good sense of what is meant by structural racism – continuing barriers that long outlast the racist bargains that produced them.


The subprime mortgage crisis, which foreshadowed the current financial crisis, highlights more recent examples of structural racism at work. A Kirwan Institute report in August pointed out that subprime lenders targeted minority communities precisely because “traditional lenders were historically absent from low-income minority communities … [making] it increasingly likely that African-American and minority borrowers would suffer the earliest and the most from the crisis.” Add it all together – the denial of benefits like Social Security, unemployment insurance and welfare, the inability to access credit and build wealth because of redlining, the employment and housing patterns and schooling conditions that are the residue of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation – and you don’t need malicious intent to see that the systems come together in a racist effect. That is what structural racism is. Finding a way to talk about it in a manner that doesn’t cause all of us caught up in the system to feel accused and to undo its tenacious and continuing impact is one of the great challenges of our time.


Let me provide a few examples of how structural racism appears in our work. Atlantic is a partner with the Open Society Institute, Carnegie and other foundations in the long hard battle to enact comprehensive immigration reform. The terrific advocates who are leading this campaign, though most are themselves people of colour, were inclined before our crushing defeat last year to cast their efforts as a good-government measure. But this vital measure was undone, in the end, by racism. Not that every argument against reform is racist– but racism and xenophobia were key factors. Even so, tensions arose between different generations of Asians and Latinos, and between some U.S.-born blacks and other communities of colour. Anyone trying to pass an immigration bill who doesn’t take into account the realities of white and black talk radio, the Greenwich country club and the Harlem barbershop, is not going to be very successful. We won’t make the same mistake the next time.


To its credit, over the last year Atlantic’s Ageing Programme looked closely at our investments to better understand how structural racism might be impeding our own successes. As a result, we have added a significant component to our grantmaking focused on communities of colour because we came to realise that the paradigm we and our grantees are trying to advance – the tremendous asset represented by older adults, who increasingly have the longevity, commitment, time and financial security to make social contributions long after what has been considered “normal” retirement age – is grounded in a white middle-class worldview that doesn’t work for everyone. It does not work, for example, for an African-American seamstress in Cleveland who takes care of two grandchildren while giving twenty hours a week to church or a Puerto Rican maintenance worker in the Bronx who can’t afford to retire.


The effects of structural racism are also evident in both Bermuda and South Africa, which are countries, like the United States, that have emerged from systems of explicit racial subjugation. Bermuda with a population of 64,000 people is something like a small town, and it has arrived at this place with little of the upheaval that accompanied transformation in the U.S. and South Africa. But submerging racial honesty does not erase underlying inequities and stresses – reflected, for example, in a school system much like that in the U.S., where all whites and better-off blacks go to private academies, and the public system is one of last resort for the poor – and the small island nation is only just beginning to grapple with them.


South Africa, despite black majority rule, suffers still from the vestiges of apartheid, one of the most over examples of structural racism in world history. In an essay in Racial Redress and Citizenship in South Africa, Steven Friedman and Zimitri Erasmus cite studies that show many white South Africans believe that racism is just a concept promoted by political ideologues, with “raw” or “serious” racism a rare exception. The 2001 World Values survey found that “white South Africans are inclined to attribute poverty to laziness.” Another study, by Kalati and Manor, reported that most whites do not feel personally responsible for apartheid and don’t see their privilege as connected to poverty. They see racial redress as “damaging to race relations.” All of this sounds sadly familiar to American ears.


Even though I don’t agree, I can understand how some U.S. whites can argue that they’re not responsible for what took place long before they were born. But I was astounded to find this attitude in white South Africans, when the past was only yesterday. The impulse by those who have enjoyed racial privilege to “put the past behind them” is enormously powerful, and apparently universal.


But it must be overcome. In upholding an affirmative action program, the late Justice Harry Blackmun once wrote: “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.”


Then the context was university admissions, but it could as well have been any sector. There is no other way for philanthropy, either, whatever a donor’s stated mission. No other way to make sure all children are equipped for work, civic participation and lifelong learning. No other way to perfect our democracy. No other way to improve public health. No other way to bring about safer communities. No other way to make sure our elders can live lives of dignity and purpose.


The paths to justice and effectiveness run on parallel lines. We have it in our grasp to fuse them.


Gara LaMarche