Have Nonprofit and Philanthropy Become the “white Moderate” that Dr. King Warned us About?
Over the past few days, I have been thinking of George Floyd’s brutal murder by the police and of the protests happening in Minneapolis, nationwide, and globally, as I know many of you are. I am at a loss on what to do and how to support our Black friends and colleagues and family members who have constantly suffered under the pervasive violence of white supremacy and racism. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any encouraging words for you at this moment. I am just angry and sad.
And to be honest, I am also frustrated by our sector. I love our field and the people in it. There is so much good that comes from our work. In the most challenging of times, we have often been a beacon of light. There are many amazing organizations and leaders organizing protests, working tirelessly to change unjust laws, lifting up people in need, providing food and shelter and hope. Thank you for all that you do, and for doing it in a time when there is so much community need even as your resources drastically dwindle.
But as I watch the news and hear of police running over protesters, white nationalists creating chaos and confusion so they can blame peaceful demonstrators, and our racist president stoking the fires of hatred and violence again and again—it makes we wonder if our sector is equipped to help bend the arc toward justice, or if we have collectively become the “white moderate” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls the biggest barrier for equity and justice for Black people and thus for us all.
From his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
We have seen this out in the world, in people who call for “civility” during heated dialogues about injustice, who advocate for folks to see “both sides,” who play devil’s advocate in the name of differences in perspectives, while claiming to be aligned with equity and progress. Right now they are the people who are worried about property damage, who insist “not all cops” are bad, who loudly proclaim that rioting is not the answer. Even as the police continue to murder Black people for centuries without any repercussion, these folks continue to prioritize this “negative peace” and lack of tension to actual justice.
In nonprofit and philanthropy, the white moderate thrives. Foundations, it manifests in your white-moderate hoarding of assets, refusing to increase payout beyond the bare minimum even while the fires injustice rage on. Your white-moderate reluctance to fund Black, Indigenous, and other communities-of-color-led organizations over decades has contributed to all these problems. Your white-moderate disdain of funding advocacy and systems change work has let the fires spread unchecked. Your white-moderate discomfort with saying words like “white supremacy” and “slavery” and “reparation,” insistence on order and bureaucracy through grant applications and budgets and deadlines, dismissal of solutions proposed by marginalized communities in favor of those proposed by educated white elites, gravitation toward long timelines at your convenience—these things make you part of the problem even as we look to you for help solve problems.
Nonprofits, we are equally guilty of white moderation. Our white-moderate fundraising philosophies and practices are centered entirely on making donors who are mostly white feel good about themselves. This prevents meaningful conversations about how white folks are benefitting from a racist system that has allowed them to build collective wealth through slavery and colonization, and their role in ending it. Without these conversations and the necessary actions that ensue, we nonprofits often become a fig leaf, a hobby for the rich, a self-reinforcing cycle of pity-and-heroism that prevents the actualization of true justice. This white-donor-centered fundraising system, fueled by white moderation, has caused untold damage to our work of building a just world.
The rest of us are not off the hook either. We continue to intellectualize, spending resources and time on research that demonstrate again and again what we already know, which is that all systems are racist. We stop at building logic models and having meetings and summits and believe that we’re making some sort of difference. We treat equity like an afterthought. The people with the most formal power at our organizations are still glaringly white. We shy away from politics.
The white moderate actively avoids anything controversial, anything that could be seen as “political.” Board members and organization leaders, if you cannot publicly call out white supremacy, if you can’t denounce white nationalism, if in this moment when millions are risking their lives in a pandemic to protest against police racism and you think it’s too political or uncomfortable to say that Black lives matter and act/fund accordingly, then you are a white moderate and you are part of the problem.