“Courageous Conversations” of Patriotic Philanthropists

posted on: April 21, 2011

Last week, the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement hosted a panel discussion titled “Race and Racism in America: Are We Now A Color Blind Society?” The four panelists included: Ron Christie, CEO of Christie Strategies and author; Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Sterling Speirn, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; and Stephan Thernstrom, Winthrop Research Professor of History at Harvard University.

I must preface this post with an earnest and obvious statement. Racism is a complex, nuanced, important, personal and immensely powerful toxin that can permeate all layers of society, and authors of multi-volume books may struggle to properly address the breadth and depth of this topic. Therefore, this short blog has but two modest purposes: First, I hope it helps the people who could not attend the event gain more information that catalyzes dialog and sparks questions and ideas. Second, I hope it serves as a small means of challenging our philanthropic sector to consider how widely we open our minds when we make grants.

Speirn opened his remarks with a challenge: “We encourage people to have courageous conversations.” Speirn’s W.K. Kellogg Foundation launched an initiative to grant $75 million over 5 years to “tackle structural racism and promote racial healing to race issues.” Courageous conversations are topics Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies, explains in his latest Huffington Post blog: Making the Moral Case for Change.

Thernstrom then made remarks encouraging the exact opposite. He referenced Christopher’s publications and tried debunking her assertion that America suffers the lasting effects of a “blatant, racial cast system.” To underscore his point, Thernstrom cited a series of statistics, including: 92 percent of African Americans have fairly close white friends; 50 percent of African Americans dated whites; and that we now have a president, members of Congress, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who are African Americans. He closed by suggesting we turn the conversation away from racism and towards our common interests in the Celtics game and strife in the Middle East.

Christopher evinced concern for Thernstrom’s shallow analysis of deeply entrenched racism that filled centuries of laws and consciences of too many generations. She aptly called it “simplistic, misguided and naïve at best” to suggest that racism, “a set of beliefs that helped build this nation,” could be eradicated so easily. She sighted the lasting effects of, not only slavery, but “medical experimentation, the criminal justice system, cruelty, disparities and day to day exclusion.” Despite her best efforts, Christopher said she could not just agree to disagree with Thernstrom. She also explained, “I feel the danger in there being a platform for that denigration of this important effort.”

Christie used several normative “should” statements, claiming all Americans should stress “diversity of thought, not ethnicity;” “the United American dream;” “what we have in common” and “honor[ing] and cherish[ing] character and value of ideas.” He made a lot of sense, but he did not offer suggestions as to how we can bridge the divide between our present reality and the commendable hope he has for our future.

Earlier this month, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) released a report titled: Towards Transformative Change in Health Care, authored by Terri Langston. This is the second in a series of four reports on High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy; the other reports focus on education, the arts and the environment, respectively. In the report, Langston notes:

“Today, the average black family has only one-eighth the net worth or assets of the average white family. That difference … is not explained by other factors, like education, earnings rates, savings rates. It is really the legacy of racial inequality from generations past. No other measure captures the legacy, the sort of cumulative disadvantage of race, or cumulative advantage of race for whites, than net worth or wealth.”

NCRP’s report then links this and other social determinants (such as geographic location and gender) that affect a person’s health and life expectancy.

NCRP recognizes that wealth is often a proxy for opportunity. So, intentional or unintentional racism, coupled with a litany of laws and court rulings (from the G.I. Bill, to the Federal Housing Administration legislation, to the Dread Scott Case, to Jim Crow), prevented many people of color from accumulating wealth, and consequently, from accessing opportunities for themselves and future generations.

Yes, of course personal responsibility is crucial. Yet, exercising positive personal responsibility is probably easier for someone whose parents and grandparents were not prevented from living in a desirable neighborhood with quality schools and applying for jobs that didn’t discriminate overtly or subliminally.

Although we, Americans, rightfully celebrate our melting pot of heterogeneity, every wave of immigrants felt the social, economic and political pangs of being an “other,” and those were immigrants who freely chose the voyage.

For immigrants of Caucasian descent, within a generation or so, they likely assimilated and lost their accent. During WWII, for instance, we were at war with both Germany and Japan. However, only Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. Meanwhile, Germans – the largest Diaspora in America – had physical traits that proved impossible to distinguish. No one has a fair life, but some are born with marginalized opportunities, and a portion of that marginalization can stem from historical perceptions of skin pigmentation.

Neither Speirn, nor Christopher posited an “either, or” scenario. Instead, they seemed receptive to discussions about our commonalities (as Christie and Thernstrom championed), as well as the roots and residual effects of racism.

This made me think of the philanthropic application in two parts. We as individuals can freely choose what to discuss. However, what will happen if we, as grantmakers, do not challenge ourselves to engage in courageous conversations? What good will we overlook? What societal ills will we unwittingly perpetuate?

So, at the end of the day, how can we best serve and fund those with the abilities to solve problems, unless we first open our minds to addressing, grappling with and understanding the systemic and institutional roots of the problems we wish to solve (whether they pertain to racism or not)?

As we think and converse critically, let’s remember the words of Hubert H. Humphrey: “What we need are critical lovers of America – patriots who express their faith in their country by working to improve it.”

Christine Reeves is field associate of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP).