A beneficial intolerance? How grantmakers can support transformative change

posted on: April 19, 2011

On April 15th, political commentator and community organizer Sally Kohn, founder and chief education officer at the Movement Vision Lab grassroots think tank penned a thoughtful and thought-provoking opinion piece in the Washington Post.

In it, Kohn suggests that liberals are shortchanging themselves by being too tolerant of discrimination. Citing Karl Popper’s work, she states: “If liberals are not willing to defend against the rigid demands of their political opponents, who are emboldened by their own unwavering opinions, their full range of open-minded positions will be destroyed. Liberals are neutered by their own tolerance.”

It’s ironic that this piece was published at the same time that several of my colleagues and I were attending an event at the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy titled Race and Racism in America: Are We Now a Color Blind Society? That discussion among panelists Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president of program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Harvard professor Stefan Thernstrom, Sterling Speirn, Kellogg’s president and CEO, and political strategist and author Ron Christie touched on several of the issues Kohn raised.

First, there was clearly disagreement in the room about the extent to which race plays a role in determining life opportunities in our country. More importantly, and relating directly to what Kohn posits, were the differences in opinion between Drs. Christopher and Thernstrom. Dr. Christopher suggested that the legacy of racial discrimination is so deeply entrenched in our institutions and norms that we have to think of race in terms of healing and acknowledge the impact of disparate treatment on various life outcomes today. Conversely, Dr. Thernstrom contended that while we are not at a point where we could call ourselves a colorblind society, that circumstances have changed enough to warrant a serious critique of Dr. Christopher and Kellogg’s approach to racial equity. The fault doesn’t lie in our institutions but is a reflection of personal failure and abdication of personal responsibility.

To be clear, all panelists expressed agreement that we are not living in a race-neutral society, but there was palpable tension in the room between those who think along the lines of Dr. Thernstrom, including people of color, and those who believe in the role of institutional and structural racism, racialized opportunity and the continuing significance of race in our country.

Kohn cites the work of Thomas R. West stating that “tolerance is often used in a pejorative way to make excuses for inequalities in power. West makes the same critique of negotiation: When fundamental rights and core values are on the table, just talking about negotiating means you’ve already lost.”

This statement became all the more resonant for me after the Hudson debate. We are talking about basic civil rights and shared values when we use the frame of racial healing as Kellogg does. When I interviewed Dr. Christopher for our recently released Towards Transformative Change in Health Care, she explained why the foundation uses this frame: “One of the reasons that the equity work is framed as racial healing work is that people have to come to a willingness to see the urgency and the persistence of the attitudes and perceptions that lead to the structural realities, and they have to have the willingness to do the work to change that. This requires a change of heart.”

I came back to the office and read Kohn’s piece in which she says: “For all the mockery of hyper-tolerant political correctness, identity politics is anything but tolerant. It demands that society be more accepting and inclusive of those who are marginalized because of their race, gender or sexual orientation. But it does not go so far as to tolerate intolerance. Those who fight racism and sexism in society do so out of deep moral convictions. They would never say, ‘Oh, we can co-exist with Fred Phelps and the KKK and find a way to compromise.’ Creating a society that fully embraces gay people and people of color means creating a society that is intolerant of homophobia and racism.” (emphases mine).

The similarities between her worldview and that of Kellogg and Dr. Christopher speak for themselves – we can’t talk about issues of equity in any issue, health, education, the arts or the environment without acknowledging the importance of values.

Kohn goes on to state that Democrats are acting as if they are at a “polite tea party” while Republicans are battling them on ideological grounds. Noting Republican deficit reduction proposals that would gut Medicaid and Medicare, programs that provide needed social support to our most disenfranchised community members, while providing tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, she continues, “Obama seems to understand that, at least in the short term, liberals have lost control of the conversation and have to play by the rules that the extreme right has made up. That means Democrats have to do something regarding the deficit and spending.”

So what does all this mean for philanthropy? Kohn wonders if a lack of funds from liberal donors might be partially to blame but places the fault squarely on the liberal over-tolerance of intolerance. In fact, she says that “taken as a whole, it would appear that Obama is intolerant of one thing: conflict.”

While community organizing and advocacy have matured significantly to include sophisticated strategies that go well-beyond direct action, perhaps Kohn hit on something here? For those of us who are committed to making our country more fair and just, to contributing to equity, should we be less conflict averse in our approaches? Or, can we reclaim the terms of the debate in some other way that doesn’t include conflict?

I often quote Frederick Douglass’s statement that power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will – do you agree?

Foundations can play a transformational role in making our society fairer and more inclusive. They can prioritize intentionally underserved communities in their grantmaking and they can support community organizing, policy and civic engagement work or social justice philanthropy (grants that seek systemic reform). And they could support a morally-based intolerance of intolerance and discrimination.

I’m sure there are other ways and would love to hear your thoughts. In the interim, philanthropy certainly has its work cut out for it in terms of developing strategies that move us closer to inclusion and justice.

Niki Jagpal is research and policy director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP).