Foundations Are Deepening Racism Even as They Seek to Fight It

Reprinted from Chronicle of Philanthropy, July 25, 2017

Ever since President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1964, foundations have adopted a D-Day-style approach to joining in the fight: Nonprofit leaders (mostly white people) are the Allies landing in embattled communities to “help at-risk youths stay on track and avoid becoming negative statistics” or some similar mission. Meanwhile, local organizations founded and run by people of color are the resistance. They are righteous but lack sufficient money and other resources to get past enemy lines. Just surviving every day is a victory.

The problem in the grand heroic narrative of D-Day philanthropy is that it casts black children in the role of threat, and the “enemy lines” are the urban schools, homes, and cities in which they dwell. That’s a mistake. Unless we update progressive foundations’ outdated view of black Americans, we will deepen racism for another 50 years.

Here are three reasons we need to change the narrative — and do it fast.

The current approach deepens racial stigmas.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, says his research has proved that people cannot objectively consider facts and then make choices. Instead, we’re hard-wired to first draw on our existing associations to form a narrative of what’s happening and then to disregard facts that don’t fit that narrative. So a story that casts black children and neighborhoods in need of a D-Day-style rescue, means that other facts will be left out.

In short, narrative matters. It matters more than facts because it determines which facts we deploy, credit, and ignore. It matters more than life itself, which is why we construct narratives to justify war.

So how does philanthropy’s D-Day narrative affect its approach to black people?

I’ve conducted workshops with more than 1,000 foundation executives and social-innovation leaders, and I ask them what they know about black poverty, dropout rates, or unemployment.

The narrative of black community degradation, failure, and futility is widely known among progressive foundations — and dealing with those issues commands significant philanthropic support. But when I ask leaders who work on poverty how many black millionaires there are, or those who target dropout rates how many black students attend college, or those who focus on unemployment how many black people are employers, they have no idea.

The story progressive foundations have been told about black people can be easily summed up: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, and you have no jobs.”

That quote happens to be from Donald J. Trump on the campaign trail last year. Although his statement drew denouncements of bigotry, it’s very clear that both liberals and conservatives deeply believe black people are problematic. They only really disagree on what to do about us.

That’s a mistake.

Certainly, black Americans have more than their fair share of challenges. We must point them out if we are to solve them. But philanthropists do grave harm when they disregard powerful facts about the achievements of black America. That’s why so few people in philanthropy and beyond realize that black people lead the nation in:

Parenting: Black men are the most engaged fathers in the country, according to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics.

Patriotism: They are most likely to enlist and serve in the Army, according to a U.S. Defense Department report.

Enterprise: Black people create businesses at a rate that is growing at over twice the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Generosity: Black households give 25 percent more of their income to charity than the national average, according to W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Cultures of Giving report.

The stakes of this ignorance are very high. After all, if foundations don’t have this data-driven profile of black people and their strengths, they can’t take advantage of those strengths to solve social problems.

It also undercuts support from average Americans. Ignoring the strengths of black Americans is problematic for other reasons, research shows.

The Frameworks Institute, a research group that helps nonprofits communicate about social problems, found that when people hear negative data about a group of people, they associate the failures with the people — not with the institutions or systems that have made it impossible for them to thrive. That means that when foundations use the D-Day narrative exclusively, they make most people even less willing and interested in helping black people and others striving to get out of poverty.

In his book The Righteous Mind, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt showed that conservatives and liberals lean on different sets of values. When liberals say “equity,” they mean “inclusion.” When conservatives say “equity,” they mean “fairness.”

Many conservatives believe it’s “unfair” to give opportunities to people who “haven’t earned them.” So when liberals fail to show data that demonstrates how black people earn and contribute every day, they are reinforcing a false impression that only white people are earning their keep.

Without new narratives, it’s hard to find new solutions.

Rather than defining people by their problems, ignoring their contributions, and parachuting behind enemy lines to fix them, philanthropists could borrow an approach my organization takes. We define people by their contributions before acknowledging their challenges, and we look to build on their strengths to benefit everyone.

One elegant solution arising from this new narrative would be for philanthropists to bank with black-owned banks because they are, by nature, social-impact banks.

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 67 percent of black-owned banks’ loans go to black people and their businesses, compared with 1 to 2 percent from traditional banks. So by depositing in a black-owned bank, foundations can literally invest in black communities and fight poverty, free and at no risk.

In October 2016, my organization took this approach. BMe Community deposited $1 million with OneUnited Bank, which turned that money into $2.5 million in housing loans to low-to-moderate income families in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood and Compton, Calif., just outside Los Angeles. Since these funds were on deposit and FDIC-insured, we retained full access to them. There was no cost or risk to us. But we know people who live in Liberty City and Compton are able to make a difference because of our deposit.

Foundations can come up with solutions like this by asking themselves key questions. Here are some to get started:

  • Do you deposit even 10 percent of your funds with community financial institutions?
  • Do you collect asset data? Can you quote statistics about homeownership, college degrees, or the wealth of target populations? Not their gap statistics but their accomplishments?
  • Do you require that the strategic consulting and communications firms you hire have people of color in senior roles? If you don’t require it, those firms (most of which have only white leaders) won’t do it.
  • What if your application replaced “problem statement” with this question: “What do you aspire to accomplish?”

By asking these questions, philanthropists can leave the D-Day narrative in the 1940s, where it belongs. More important, they will encourage the kind of philanthropy that will lead to a stronger future for all Americans.