Philanthropy’s role in dismantling white supremacy and anti-Blackness toward a Just Transition
Concrete actions for philanthropy to get us closer to a different future.
The disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities have brought much needed attention to the racialized impacts of the extractive, capitalist economic system of the United States. The recent police murders of Black people and the violent police response to the uprisings have also laid bare how Black and Brown bodies are considered dispensable in the pursuit of protecting capital and private property. Perhaps most importantly, it has become impossible to ignore that these injustices are not a result of a system that is broken, but one that is doing exactly what it was designed to do.
American capitalism has relied on the subjugation and exploitation of BIPOC communities since its beginnings. The theft of Indigenous land, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the enslaved labor of millions of African people are what fueled the economic growth of the U.S. in its early history. Today, workers of color are chronically concentrated in underpaid, undervalued occupations while (mostly) white corporate executives profit from their labor. In essence, our country’s capitalist economic system is intensely reliant on the entrenched forces of white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
Because the modern field of institutional philanthropy has been built upon this extractive economic system, it’s no surprise that white supremacy and anti-Blackness are baked into the practices of our field. The vast majority (roughly 95%) of the ~$1 trillion in U.S. foundation assets are invested in the stock market in order to gain the financial returns needed to exist in perpetuity. Many foundations have chosen to grow their endowments by generating enormous profits from industries that harm the very Black and Brown communities that their grant dollars aim to support, such as predatory lending, speculative real estate, surveillance, money bail and the prison and military industrial complexes. Meanwhile, less than 2% of grant funding by the nation’s largest foundations specifically supports Black communities. Even in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic like COVID-19, many foundations have chosen not to increase their spending in order to protect their endowments from the economic downturn.
When grants are made to Black-led organizations, they are more likely to be restricted in purpose compared to grants to white-led organizations. Even foundations with stated commitments to racial equity narrowly set their sights on “equitable outcomes” in health, education and employment within the unjust systems that have never cared for Black people without seeking to dismantle those systems altogether. Those who attempt to be so bold as to state their commitment to racial justice, as more and more funders are beginning to do, still shy away from funding Black-led organizing that builds the political, economic and cultural power of Black communities to create systemic change toward a world in which white supremacy and anti-Blackness no longer exist.
This is no surprise, given that philanthropy directly benefits from these oppressive systems that our movements are seeking to dismantle.
Because white supremacy and anti-Blackness are baked into the structures and practices of philanthropy, it is impossible to eradicate these forces from our field as it is currently structured. What is required is a wholesale re-imagination of institutional philanthropy as we know it.
What if philanthropy were to humbly acknowledge its role in the centuries of harm caused to BIPOC communities, and accept its moral obligation to provide reparations? What if foundations were no longer induced to endlessly accumulate capital by maximizing their return on investments at the expense of communities they claim to support? What if foundations were to relinquish their power and control over how funding is allocated for the public good, and transfer the management of financial resources into the hands of communities who have been most devastated by the extractive economy?
This kind of deep, radical transformation of philanthropy — one in which our field re-orients its purpose toward redistributing wealth, democratizing power and shifting economic control to the communities — is precisely what is required for a Just Transition to a regenerative economy in which Black lives are valued and cared for.
Unfortunately, philanthropy’s self-interest in preserving the status quo has resulted in a lack of imagination about how its resources can be utilized to transform our society’s most oppressive systems. There is a fundamental mismatch between foundation strategies, which rarely stray outside of what is considered politically feasible, and the bold and visionary demands of Black-led movements calling for systemic change.
This is a moment that requires us to truly consider the level of response that is needed to disrupt, repair and reverse 500 years of devastation that white supremacy, anti-Blackness and the extractive economic system have wreaked on BIPOC communities. Once we are honest about the scale of the problems we face, we can radically expand our imaginations to build a future that looks fundamentally different than it does now.
Here are some concrete actions that philanthropy can take to get us closer to a different future.
Divest from systems that harm Black communities
If you work at a foundation, chances are that your institution has investments in companies that directly harm Black communities, but no one knows exactly what those holdings are except the investment officer or an outside investment manager. Performing an audit will help to create transparency; this racial justice exclusion list is a good place to start. From there, foundations can make a determination about which companies to divest from to ensure their investment practices are aligned with their values. The next step is to divest from the stock market — a central institution of capitalism, and thus one that is inherently racist — altogether. It’s far beyond time for foundations to be held to a higher standard on how the tax-sheltered assets are managed.
Divestment applies to grantmaking as well. For example, funders supporting police reform strategies such as body cameras, training and community relations are actually further resourcing a system that has brutalized BIPOC communities since its inception. Police reform efforts are meant to continue or expand the reach of policing, rather than decreasing the power and scope of a system that is racist at its root. In essence, police reform is a false solution because it does not invest in new systems that create true safety and resilience for BIPOC communities that center community governance.
Redistribute wealth to Black communities
When foundations begin divesting their endowments from the most nefarious companies, they often make the mistake of simply reinvesting those assets back into other stock market holdings that are “less bad” but are still fueling the extractive economy (think “Impact Investing”). In order to ensure that 100% of foundation assets are being used to create systemic change, endowments can instead be reinvested in local and regional economic development efforts that build economic power, self-determination and shared prosperity in Black communities. This includes Black cooperatives and community land trusts, loan funds that support Black farmers and land liberation projects, and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that provide financing for Black-owned businesses.
Meanwhile, grantmaking strategies must move beyond vague commitments to “racial justice” (which can often mean funding white-led organizations doing anti-racism work) and specifically support Black-led organizing work that has historically been underfunded and undervalued. Dismantling white supremacy and anti-Blackness requires deep, long-term investments in Black leaders and organizations who are actualizing a society in which Black people have the political, economic and cultural power to self-determine their futures, live with dignity and truly be free. To invest in this work, philanthropy must align its strategies with movement-identified priorities such as the unequivocal demand to defund the police, the Movement for Black Lives’s Policy Platform and the Justice For Black Communities plank of the People’s Orientation to a Regenerative Economy. This is no time for foundations to be crafting their own agendas on how to fight systemic racism when our movements are already showing us the way.
Transfer decision-making power over the allocation of philanthropic resources to Black communities
Investing dollars into Black communities is not enough to build economic power if the decisions over where and how those dollars are distributed remain in the hands of wealthy, white foundation staff and trustees. If we understand that those from whom wealth and power have been stolen hold the greatest expertise needed to pursue a Just Transition toward a regenerative economy, it becomes clear that these are the very individuals and communities who should decide how philanthropic resources are allocated. While participatory grantmaking is a start, many such processes are still managed and controlled by philanthropic institutions where the wealth is held. The redistribution of power requires decision-making over the allocation of grant and investment capital be transferred completely into community control. One such vehicle that puts economic decisions in the hands of community members is the Ujima Fund, the first democratically governed investment fund in the U.S. that raises capital to finance small businesses, real estate and infrastructure projects in Boston’s working-class BIPOC communities. Another is the emerging Southern Power Fund, which is seeding a community-controlled fund to resource Black-led community resilience work in the South.
A Just Transition toward a regenerative economy that truly values and cares for Black lives is one that will liberate us all from the pernicious forces of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and the extractive, capitalist economic system. If we align our practices with our values and utilize all of the resources at our disposal, we can create a world built on cooperation and interdependence, where community resilience and collective well-being are prioritized over all else.
Imagine a society where Black people are able to democratically govern how resources are preserved, used and distributed, and where Black communities control the laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve us. Imagine an economy with thriving ecosystems of Black-owned cooperatives, land trusts and public health infrastructures that serve our collective needs. Imagine a real democracy in which Black people can exercise their full political power and have self-determination over all aspects of their lives.
Philanthropy can play a catalytic role in this kind of wide-scale economic and societal transformation, but it will take tremendous humility, courage and a fundamental re-organization of our field as we currently know it. If we can imagine it, we can manifest a future that we never thought was possible, but one that we all desperately need and deserve.
We invite you to read the other posts in our series on Dismantling White Supremacy & Anti-Blackness in Philanthropy:
- Dismantling White Supremacy & Anti-Blackness in Philanthropy: A letter to our colleagues in philanthropy
- A Philanthropic Commitment to Dismantling White Supremacy and Anti-Blackness Must include Support for Defunding the Police
- Can philanthropy relinquish enough power and control to support BIPOC communities in governing resources for themselves?
- How Philanthropy Gets to Transformation: The Human Experience of Change