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Letters to the Editor: Philanthropy and Racism

Resource type: News

The Chronicle of Philanthropy |

Original Source To the Editor: Structural-racism training programs have helped hundreds of nonprofit organizations and community foundations, many of which are administered or operated by white people but primarily serve people of color, learn how to orient their theories of change from charity to empowerment through the simple act of analyzing whether their work is passively advancing “invisible” racism or actively dismantling it. I believe philanthropic institutions have not done enough to help the nonprofit sector understand the complex ways that racism plays out in our work and our lives on a day-to-day basis. For three years the Atlantic Philanthropies, where I work, have supported the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change to offer structural-racism seminars to our Children and Youth and Aging grantees in the United States and Bermuda. The seminars are not mandated, and participants are not awarded any credit or consequent grants for having attended them. Yet the seminars are incredibly successful, the demand far outweighs the supply, and the outcomes are many-layered and very impressive. The Roundtable staff is steeped in the subject and has a special talent for convening diverse individuals to discuss race in honest and productive ways. And they’re not just committed to explaining the dominant construction of race as a black/white phenomenon. They are able to facilitate nuanced discussions that result in a greater understanding of the ways in which Latinos, Chicanos, Mestizos, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and others are woven into the racial narrative. The seminar facilitators also layer gender, language, and socioeconomic analyses onto the discussion, which leaves the seminar participants with an even greater appreciation of the interplay and interdependence of these issues. Seminar participants acquire an understanding of the problem with structural racism, and gain the vocabulary and courage to communicate and apply this knowledge to their organizations. Some participants have committed to increasing the diversity of their executive staff and boards to include a set of voices and faces that genuinely represents the constituents. Others have developed and implemented an organizationwide racial-equity agenda. Many participants say they experience a deep, personal transformation, in which a newfound appreciation of systemic racial inequity provides a wholly new perspective on their work and interactions with co-workers and clients. What do we intend by giving money to organizations that advance a structural-racism critique? First, we intend to help our grantees understand their task on a deeper level. Second, we intend to offer more individuals, organizations, and communities the tools to achieve this task. And finally, we intend to advance the task as aggressively as possible to achieve racial equity and make long-overdue progress for the poorest communities of color. Nicole Gallant Program Executive Atlantic Philanthropies New York This letter to the editor was written in response to the article below. —————————————————————————————— From The Chronicle of Philanthropy issue dated May 15, 2008: My View: Philanthropy’s Jeremiah Wright Problem By William A. Schambra Many Americans were startled to learn that the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose campaign is built on an uplifting message of national unity and racial reconciliation, belongs to a church in Chicago where a very different view of America is preached by its longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Mr. Wright, who just retired after decades in the pulpit, has argued that the “United States of White America” is still sharply divided between an oppressive white power structure and oppressed African-Americans, that God should “damn America for treating our citizens as less than human,” and that the 2001 terrorist attacks signified that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” Americans might be further surprised to learn that grants from the nation’s largest foundations sustain a similarly harsh view of a nation riven by an unrelenting and deeply oppressive racial divide. America, in this view, is steeped in “structural racism.” This “refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial-group inequity,” according to “Structural Racism and Community Building,” a 2004 report from the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change (supported by the Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, W.K. Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations, among others). Because of these deeply embedded and all-pervasive structural arrangements, “groups of color are continually ‘sorted’ and experience marginalization, isolation, exclusion, exploitation, and subordination relative to those who are whites. The link between whiteness and privilege and between color and disadvantage is maintained, even today, through these sorting processes.” To protest that the decline of explicitly racist attitudes and behaviors suggests we are rapidly becoming a “colorblind” society only reflects and reinforces a deeper structural racism. “Many whites are blind to structural unfairness precisely because of their structural advantages,” while “their frame of colorblind ‘equal opportunity’ allows [them] to see themselves as supporting racial equality, and even as part of the solution, while actually maintaining racial hierarchy and legitimating white privilege,” notes a 2005 report from the Center for Social Inclusion, a project of the Tides Center supported by Ford and the Open Society Institute. Given the strength of structural racism, efforts to increase “diversity and inclusiveness are important commitments – but ultimately not powerful enough to drive the changes” for which foundations should strive, argues a philanthropist quoted in “Grant Making With a Racial Equity Lens,” a guide from the Ford Foundation’s GrantCraft project in partnership with the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (another Tides Center project supported by the Casey, Ford, Kellogg, and Mott foundations). Merely providing money to “communities of color for services and programs” or focusing on “interpersonal aspects of race and racism” are also insufficient, without “exposing systemic inequities, confronting institutional practices, and initiating policy reform,” according to the Applied Research Center, a racial-justice advocacy group (financed by Casey, Ford, and Mott). Indeed, it is generally “not enough to work for reforms and policy initiatives that may positively impact people of color…if we are not explicit about racism as a root cause of the problem,” maintains the Western States Center, a group that works to “build a progressive movement” in eight Western states, financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ford. Structural racism’s embeddedness in America’s political and social institutions means that dramatic, perhaps revolutionary, change will be necessary to eradicate it, in order to introduce complete equality to all aspects of our national life. One way to pursue such change is to import international human rights into the nation’s political discourse. Those rights include not just the familiar but limited political rights like free speech and assembly, but also the unfamiliar but vastly more comprehensive economic and social rights embodied in some international compacts. “Many in the United States do not realize that health, housing, food, work, and an adequate standard of living are all rights protected by human-rights law,” notes the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center (supported by the Robin Hood, Ford, Surdna, and Mertz Gilmore foundations, among others). In other words, according to the Ford Foundation’s “Close to Home: Case Studies of Human Rights Work in the United States,” human rights “assert the inalienability of rights in a much broader sense than has ever been expressed constitutionally” in America. Indeed, the Ford document goes on, “U.S. human-rights activists are trying to reshape U.S. society according to a philosophy and framework of rights that most people have not heard of or have been taught to think of as foreign.” The American government’s resistance to this “revolution of values,” this effort to “break out of the chokehold of domestic law,” is simply further evidence of the “persistence of structural racism in this country.” The depth of disillusionment with America felt by critics of structural racism became apparent at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001. Scores of American nongovernmental organizations received money from Ford, Mott, and other foundations to prepare for and attend the gathering. Although the most spectacular philanthropic outcome of Durban was the Ford Foundation’s hasty withdrawal of support from several rabidly anti-Semitic Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, the sustained outpouring of vitriol against Israel, Europe, and the United States finally drove the official American delegation to leave early. One of the hotly contested items at the conference was the demand by nonprofit groups for reparations in partial recompense for the West’s historical trafficking in slavery. But “America, fattened on the land, lives, and liberty of conquered nations and enslaved peoples, said no,” Linda Burnham, co-founder of the Ford-financed Women of Color Resource Center, said at an awards ceremony in October 2001, in a “willful, shameful denial of the past in the service of preserving racist, profoundly unequal relations.” Writing in 2002 for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (financed by Rockefeller, Ford, Kellogg, Mott, and Tides, among others), Eric Mann praised the Durban conference for demonstrating that “in any arena in which the struggle against racism and colonial domination is taken seriously, the U.S. empire…self-nominates as the main cause of organized racism and national oppression in the world.” The movement for reparations, he notes, “will be driven by years or even decades of a ‘crimes against humanity’ tribunal, with European and U.S. imperialist civilization on trial.” The resulting campaign would “challenge the very legitimacy of the U.S. to exist as a nation state, and call into question its settler-state history of genocide against both indigenous peoples and blacks.” When America was attacked on September 11, 2001, some structural-racism theorists agreed with Pastor Wright that it was a “chickens coming home to roost” moment. September 11 meant that America’s “dream of endless greed, aggression and world dominance has been revealed for the appalling nightmare it always was,” Ms. Burnham insisted at the awards ceremony. “The fortress has been breached. And it will be breached again and again as long as we have a hand in feeding the desperation, alienation, and disillusionment that stoke the myriad forms of murderous male rage.” Just as Senator Obama seized the Jeremiah Wright controversy as an opportunity to explain his broader view of race in America, so this might be the moment for some of our largest foundations to explain what they intend by giving money to organizations that advance the structural-racism critique of America. Is it true that American institutions are so fundamentally racist and oppressive that good-faith efforts to increase inclusiveness and diversity, or to relieve distress through nonracially specific programs, are simply futile? How wise is it to try to “reshape U.S. society according to a philosophy and framework of rights that most people have not heard of,” much less consented to as self-governing citizens? What powers would the federal government have to wield, which rights overridden, whose property seized, in order to establish complete equity throughout society? Is the principle of a “colorblind” society a worthy aspiration or simply a device to mask and preserve an oppressive white power structure? Senator Obama ultimately decided that Mr. Wright’s “incendiary language” – language so similar to that thrown about freely by structural-racism theorists – reflected “views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Could the same be said about some grants made by our largest foundations? William A. Schambra is director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, in Washington. Krista Shaffer, a Hudson Institute fellow, provided research assistance for this article.

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