The System was Built to Break Black People
But we refuse to be broken. Instead, we build.
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So the first part of the problem is how to control the rage so that it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country. — James Baldwin
Listening to the steady drumbeat of helicopters and police sirens from my apartment in Oakland Friday evening transported me back to 2015, when Freddie Gray was killed in police custody in my hometown Baltimore, sparking civil unrest and nationwide attention. Like Freddie Gray five years ago, the senseless killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery have incited anguish, frustration, grief, and protest. Unfortunately, we’ve been here many times before over the past twelve years: Oscar Grant. Sandra Bland. Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. Gray. The Charleston Nine. Atatiana Jefferson. Jordan Davis. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. After each loss of black life, there is shock and outrage, a harsh reminder and lesson that the mantra black lives matter remains merely an aspiration.
This lesson has been reinforced throughout the entirety of my thirty-six years as a black male growing up and in living in America. It started when my mother, Kimberly, read to me the Langston Hughes poem Mother To Son when I was a toddler — Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair — as a prophecy meant to prepare me for the daunting realities of being black. I continued to learn this lesson as an adolescent, as my parents made me aware that I would need to work twice as hard and expect half as much, simply for being black. And it was my now-deceased grandfather, James, a Purple Heart in the Korean War, who instilled in me a skepticism of police, drawing parallels of his experiences in the military to policing of black communities in the United States. Every subtle clutching of a purse, every look of suspicion, every interaction with a police officer, is a constant reminder that for much of this country, black people are considered, as W.E.B. Du Bois described in The Souls of Black Folks, “a problem.”
As we mourn the tragic loss of black life from police brutality and white nationalism over recent weeks, we must also recognize that the injustices affecting black people are innumerable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how systemic racism in healthcare, housing, and public health has left black people disproportionately at risk to the outbreak, with black deaths nationwide from COVID-19 nearly two times greater than would be expected based on our share of the population. As the virus wreaks havoc on the US economy, black people are particularly vulnerable and further pushed to the margins, while the number of active black businesses has already dropped more than 40 percent over the past few months.
While we like to believe that the system is merely “broken,” now is the time we finally acknowledge that the system was purposely designed to break black people.
But we refuse to break, and here we stand, unbroken and undeterred. Like many black people in this country, I live each day with anger and pain, but also joy and optimism.
This is what Du Bois referred to as double consciousness, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Our strength keeps us from breaking under the weight of racism and economic injustice. Instead, we build.
I’ve been asked repeatedly by friends and colleagues how black, indigenous, and leaders of color can be supported during what seems like an insurmountable period of crises. My answer is best articulated by the activist Charlene Carruthers,
“It is not a risk to invest in black and brown people fighting for liberation. It’s the surest bet. When we have the resources to lead our own struggles, the world is transformed.”
Right now, I challenge donors and impact investors to begin to rectify the myriad funding disparities faced by black, indigenous, and people of color organizations. We know what they are, even though we rarely acknowledge them: a report by Echoing Green and Bridgespan on racial disparities in philanthropy found that white-led groups that applied to the prestigious social entrepreneur fellowship had budgets 24 percent larger than those led by people of color, while unrestricted assets of organizations led by people of color were 76 percent smaller than those led by whites.
In another recent report, “The Case for Funding Black-Led Social Change,” the Association for Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) discovered that 60 percent of the black-led organizations it surveyed had budgets of $500,000 or less, and just 23 percent had reserves of 3 months or more. If you’re a funder looking to be in allyship with communities of color in this moment, your task is simple: fund and invest in institutions led by people of color that are focused on equity and justice.
For all these reasons, Common Future is deploying $750,000 this week to black-led and/or predominately black organizations in our network that support and invest in black communities impacted by economic injustice.
Common Future is not a traditional grantmaking organization. In fact, we made our first grants in response to COVID-19 when we committed and channeled capital directly to the frontlines. We supported seven leaders in our network within one week and then raised additional funds to make three more grants four weeks later.
This week, justice demands more from us. In place of an application process, we relied on trusted relationships with leaders in our national network, knowledge we maintain around their work, and publicly available information to make quick decisions. Within 48 hours, we committed the funds, notified grant recipients, and started to cut the checks, in direct contrast to the slow-moving, quarterly grant cycles it typically takes institutional philanthropy to move money.
Common Future aims to live by example and show that philanthropic norms are just that — social practices that can be uprooted.
Investing in black leadership is essential for building power. We must do this to create a future that works for all of us and to demonstrate that economic justice is a reality within our reach.
The opportunity to shift capital to shift power is in front of us. My request is simple: be an ally and fund people of color. Now.