Debate on US Foundations: Supporting Racism Studies?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an interesting debate on studies of systemic (structural) racism funded by a few foundations. In a May 15, 2008 article, “Philanthropy’s Jeremiah Wright Problem,” William A. Schambra argues sensationally thus:

“Many Americans were startled to learn that the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose campaign is built on an uplifting message of national unity and racial reconciliation, belongs to a church in Chicago where a very different view of America is preached by its longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Then he adds melodramatically:

Americans might be further surprised to learn that grants from the nation’s largest foundations sustain a similarly harsh view of a nation riven by an unrelenting and deeply oppressive racial divide. America, in this view, is steeped in “structural racism.” This “refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial-group inequity,” according to “Structural Racism and Community Building,” a 2004 report from the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change (supported by the Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, W.K. Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations, among others).

He is critical of this foundational support for research and perspectives on structural racism, which concept and historical reality he seems to know nothing about. (He could look here and here, for a little education, perhaps.) He concludes his reactionary piece, thus:

Senator Obama ultimately decided that Mr. Wright’s “incendiary language” — language so similar to that thrown about freely by structural-racism theorists — reflected “views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Could the same be said about some grants made by our largest foundations?

Then there is the supportive view of what a few foundations are doing on systemic racism issues, and a critique of Schambra’s white-oriented thinking playing down systemic racism, by Aaron Dorman & Niki Jagpal, “Foundations and ‘Structural Racism’: Take Another Look,” a reply to the reactionary article on May 28, 2008:

But a clearer, more accurate picture of structural racism begs for a comprehensive definition that takes into account the milieu of the analysis. Moreover, Mr. Schambra uses the most seemingly provocative statements from the many reports he cites, but when read in context, the quotes are far less “startling” than Schambra would have readers believe. Andrew Grant-Thomas and John A. Powell offer a simple framework that describes structural racism as emphasizing “the powerful impact of interinstitutional dynamics, institutional resource inequities, and historical legacies on racial inequalities today.”

Then they point out that foundations are not doing all that much in support of critical systemic racism analysis:

Readers are left with the impression that our large national foundations are aggressively funding some radical leftist agenda that the American public is utterly unfamiliar with and, if enlightened, would be unsupportive of. Unfortunately, he fails to take into account key giving trends, resulting in an inaccurate, if not misleading, picture of the current state of philanthropy in the United States. Let’s look at the numbers. In a 2005 report, Independent Sector and the Foundation Center found that social-justice grant making in 1998 and 2002 comprised a meager 11 percent of overall foundation giving, and only a fraction of that was grants for issues identified by the structural-racism framework as barriers to equality. . . . . Is it true that our large foundations are so acutely aware of race and oppression in their grant making that they prioritize racially specific grants? Again, the data suggest otherwise. The 2008 edition of the Foundation Center’s annual Foundation Giving Trends: Update on Funding Priorities notes that in 2006, funding for racial or ethnic minorities increased by only 5.5 percent, while overall grant making rose by 16.4 percent.

Then they add this:

The structural-racism framework posits that analyses of racial inequality that ignore the historical decisions that led to institutional barriers to equality of achievement are insufficient in understanding race in the United States. To that end, explicitly identifying deliberate policy decisions that persist as barriers to equality is an integral component of any work that truly seeks to affect change in American racial attitudes.

Then take Schambra to task too for misrepresentations of philanthropic foundations:

In fact, a decade of research by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shows how conservative foundations have been strategically advancing their agenda by providing sympathetic think tanks and advocacy organizations with flexible and multiyear grants, and supporting programs that specifically target public policy and promote conservative ideas.

And conclude with a pregnant question indeed:

In response, we ask: Why are the small percentage of structural-racism grants a cause for concern among Mr. Schambra and leaders of conservative foundations who have been so successful themselves at actually influencing government and policy decisions? Why should progressive foundations apologize for seeking to effectively address the needs of marginalized communities by funding organizations that seek to transform the institutions that perpetuate social inequities?

Why indeed?


  1. Kai

    it is a part of their strategy. Why does the number 1 Soda manufacturer spend more money on advertising and marketing than any other? Because they want to maintain their advantage. The right is typically acutely aware of that the scales are tipped in their favor, and will fight to keep it that way.

  2. Joe Author

    Indeed, good point. The progressive community seems to be disorganized and fighting among themselves, which lets the right develop this control , often with smaller numbers…..

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