On Monday, Americans from all walks of life joined together to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with volunteer projects and other commemorations reflecting his teachings. Today most Americans applaud Dr. King’s life and his legacy, but that, of course, was not always the case. In the past, the notion of celebrating his work with a national holiday was met with acrimony in many quarters.
That kind of reluctance to celebrate an African-American may seem part of America’s past. After all, this year a new National Museum of African-American History and Culture will open on the National Mall, fully recognizing black Americans’ struggles and accomplishments. Couple that with the King memorial that opened in Washington in 2011, not to mention the monumental election and re-election of President Obama, and it may seem to some that African-Americans have achieved Dr. King’s dream of being judged by the quality of our character, not by the color of our skin.
Most black Americans know that is not the case. There is no postracial America. The question is: does philanthropy know?
This question first arose for me five or six years ago when I heard a local philanthropist tell the late civil rights leader Julian Bond — who at the time was leading annual bus trips through the South, stopping at key landmarks of the movement — "Well, Julian, I guess you won’t have to do those civil rights tours anymore now that Mr. Obama is in the White House."
Then, following the death of Trayvon Martin, several local philanthropists expressed surprise when I told them of my talks with my then-teenage son about walking-while-black, driving-while-black, shopping-while-black. "You still have to do that?" they said.
But the moment that really clinched it for me — that confirmed how unaware philanthropy is that we are nowhere near achieving a postracial America — came last fall, when I saw the puzzled looks on the faces of many white grant makers when they heard a presentation by David Williams, a professor of public health at Harvard University, at an event sponsored by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.
Most of the black attendees nodded knowingly at the facts Mr. Williams shared, but many of the whites in the audience seemed shocked when he noted that it took African-Americans 40 more years than whites to reach an average life expectancy of 69.1 years. Or that for every $1 in median household income a white family earned in 2013, a black family only brought home 59 cents. When the professor said this income disparity was the same as it had been in 1978, the room went silent.
Mr. Williams attributed these disparities to racism. He did not say "inequality" or "lack of diversity" — frequent buzzwords of philanthropy — but racism.
Perhaps most powerfully, he quoted a colleague, a Harvard economist, who said that if we could statistically eliminate the effects of racial segregation, we could eliminate the black-white difference in earnings, high school graduation rates, and unemployment. Shocking.
Philanthropy has worked for decades to help the disadvantaged. The Carnegie libraries emerged from Andrew Carnegie’s desire to provide free access to books to men, women, and children — like those who worked in his steel mills — who couldn’t afford their local libraries’ subscription fee. The Rosenwald schools, supported by the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald, a longtime head of Sears, Roebuck and Company, provided educational opportunities to blacks in the rural South. In the early 1900s, Rockefeller philanthropy supported public health efforts in the South that helped to eradicate hookworm, a condition especially prevalent among the region’s poorest citizens.
And philanthropy’s commitment to aiding the poor continues today, through efforts to improve access to quality education, health care, and housing. Many donors and foundations consider work on such programs vital to attacking the root causes of inequity in America. They believe that if we keep focusing on financing ideas we know work, soon we will reduce the problems for both blacks and whites and eliminate all disparities.
But a growing number of grant makers in Washington have decided it’s important to challenge this notion, to recognize that the distinct, negative treatment of a group of people based solely on race is a major contributor to poverty and inequality in America. We believe that racism is rarely acknowledged or discussed by members of the public or within philanthropy. And we believe that until that silence ends, our region, and our country, won’t be able to take the steps needed to end racial inequities.
That’s why this month the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, which I head, is launching "Putting Racism on the Table," a six-month lecture series for philanthropic leaders and foundation trustees on topics such as structural racism, unconscious bias, and white privilege.
Each month, nationally renowned thinkers and researchers will offer a one-hour lecture, followed by a two-hour discussion among attending grant makers about what they learned and its implications.
What’s most important about this approach is that we are going to gather the facts before we consider what philanthropy needs to do next. The format was inspired in part by the words of John Gardner, a founder of Common Cause and Independent Sector, who wrote, "The first step of leadership is not action: it is understanding."
We hope these sessions will prompt grant makers to recognize the immense value of this kind of discussion and to support efforts to bring together others in our region — business leaders, government officials — for similar conversations.
Perhaps this work could lead foundations to reshape how they carry out their missions, and to make racial justice a key frame for their grant making, whatever their overall focus. For example, some might revise their grant process to ask whether and how applicants consider racial justice as they choose projects and approaches. Some might challenge organizations that believe they’re curbing racism solely because their target audience is largely black. They might finance tools to help their grantees better understand how committed their organizations truly are to racial justice.
When the lecture series is done, grant makers will likely have even more varied responses. But first, people who work in philanthropy must believe they need to act.
At the height of the civil rights movement, racism was reflected in concrete images: a water cannon pointed at peaceful demonstrators, or police violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Today’s racism is far less overt and more unconscious, but it is no less real.
Philanthropists must recognize that no matter how laudable many of their grants, they will not reduce disparities in employment or wealth if they do not grapple with the unconscious, culturally ingrained, bias and racism that undergirds our society.
Until philanthropy commits to learning about the injustices that plague our nation, it can’t play the role our citizens demand. Let’s all make 2016 the year we take the blinders off in philanthropy and grapple with the reality that racism is still one of America’s most urgent scourges.
Tamara Copeland is president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.