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Jade Eckels

African American Philanthropy: Having Less, Giving More

Past and present-day discrimination and structural inequities created and exacerbate vast racial gaps in income and wealth. Black families own about one eighth the assets of White families. About 30 percent of African American families report that they have no liquid assets In recent years, journalists and think tanks have displayed a growing understanding of the structural and institutional racism that engendered today’s inequalities in income and wealth. But a singular focus on what Whites have and what African Americans don’t causes us to overlook the remarkably high rates and consistency with which African Americans give to charitable organizations.

Despite low relative wealth levels, African Americans of all income levels, give in numbers at at a rate that might be surprising. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 2012 report Cultures of Giving: Energizing and Expanding Philanthropy by and for Communities of Colors reveals an uptick in giving for many communities of color; nearly two-thirds of African American households donated to organizations and causes, totaling $11 billion each year, though the report does not specify which years this data refers to. Due to the paucity of more recent data, there is a clear need for updated research in the field. On average, African American households give 25 percent more of their income annually than White households. The Kellogg report found that rates of aggregate charitable giving for African Americans is increasing at a faster rate than are their incomes and wealth..

Lower relative wages for African Americans have impeded Blacks’ ability to transfer wealth intergenerationally. But as Princeton sociologist Dalton Conley argues in The Racial Wealth Gap: Origins and Implications for Philanthropy in the African American Community,a legacy of slavery, the failed promise of the reconstruction era, redlining, lending discrimination, and past and continuing housing discrimination also erected barriers to wealth accumulation for Blacks.

Some relatively new and visionary national organizations now work to both shrink the wealth gap and push the philanthropic community to more actively recognize and respond constructively to the immense generosity and giving power of African American communities. In their publication Revaluing Black America, Bithiah Carter and Ange-Marie Hancock of New England Blacks in Philanthropy (NEBIP) point to a “chronic undervaluation of Black donors” and a perception that African Americans are not as “capable of the same wealth accumulation or credited with the same financial acumen as their White counterparts.” Even even when they have a seat at the giving table, Black donors are still subject to discrimination. In the 2015 NEBIP report, “Giving Black: Boston” Black donors describe their White philanthropic peers’ incorrect assumptions that the Black donors were grantees. They also report having their financial capabilities regularly underestimated.

New-York based A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities (ABFE) encourages giving in and to Black communities and advocates for diversity and inclusion in the philanthropic sphere. ABFE provides resources to its membership base centered around career and leadership development. ABFE’s report “Wealth and Asset Building: Black Facts” explores the ways that structural inequality impedes wealth accumulation and offers strategies to promote wealth and asset creation in Black communities. This includes supporting community economic development, passing anti-discrimination policies, and supporting low-income workers, who are disproportionately African-American.

The maltreatment of Black people in philanthropy needs to be addressed both systemically and between individuals. Legacies of disenfranchisement systematically still obstruct Black wealth accumulation. Between people and within organizations and institutions, the ostracization of and against people of color discourages giving. Philanthropy, with its considerable flexibility and power to make change, can only be truly revolutionary and impactful once it makes room at the table for Black donors. Furthermore, the philanthropic community needs to recognize the outsized generosity of Black donors who’ve long earned the privilege of setting the table and the terms for grantmaking.

Jade Eckels is a senior at Brandeis University studying English as well as Afro and African-American Studies. She is also an undergraduate research assistant at the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy.

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