I delivered the following remarks at a Hudson Institute panel titled, “What is Social Justice Philanthropy?” Fellow panelists included Christine Doby of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; Thomasina H. Williams, formerly of the Ford Foundation; and University of Texas Professor Peter Frumkin. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow William Schambra moderated the discussion.
As one of my uncles used to say when he first came to the United States and was mastering English: I am very exciting to be here.
Thank you, Bill, for inviting me to speak today; and thank you, Kristen, for all your help in getting us here. Special thanks, of course, to the Hudson Institute for hosting us even after all the terrible things I’ve said about it.
And thank you all so much for coming out today to reflect on and discuss social justice philanthropy.
By way of a preface to my remarks, which I assure you will constitute the crowning experience of your lunch hours, if not your lives, I wanted to say a few brief words about the paper I co-authored with Deborah Puntenney, very grandly titled, “Social Justice Philanthropy: An Initial Framework for Positioning This Work.” (This is the paper that Bill recommended for your edification and is available via a link on the Bradley Center website.)
The paper was commissioned by an entity called the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, which had its roots—like so many other nefarious, liberal things—at the Ford Foundation. Christopher Harris, who was then a senior program officer at Ford, brought together a group of smart, big-hearted people and me so that we could not only grouse about liberal philanthropy-as-usual but also perhaps do something about it.
We were united then, as we are now, by two things: One was a wide-ranging critique of mainstream liberal philanthropy, a critique that took aim at its assumptions, its analyses, its values, its strategies, its methods—the whole bowl of popcorn.
The second thing that united us was a vision of the way that liberal philanthropy could be practiced, should be practiced, in order to make a real and lasting impact on the lives of the poor and other marginalized groups.
Now I have a confession to make: We struggled mightily to define philanthropy for social justice and peace. And it was because a number of us got so fed up with that discussion that we decided to write the article I mentioned earlier.
So you see, one of the purposes of the paper was to get people to stop arguing about the definition of social justice philanthropy and here we are with an entire panel dedicated to that purpose!
This should convince the skeptic that there is at least some kind of justice in the world.
The paper essentially argues that philanthropy for social justice and peace is a whole family of grantmaking traditions.
We identified eight such traditions in the paper. We didn’t include some because we wanted, quite frankly, to help preserve the sanity of our readers. I’m a huge fan of John Rawls, for example, but you won’t find the social contract tradition mentioned anywhere in the article.
Many social justice grantmakers, though certainly not all, focus on helping the least well off in society. I’m informed by my colleague Akwasi Aidoo, who’s the director of Trust Africa, that merchants of Arab descent suffer terrible discrimination in Senegal. They are by no means the least well off in Senegalese society, but their cause is rightly the concern of grantmakers who care about social justice.
Many of these grantmakers, but again not all, attempt to change the political, economic, and social structures that drive whole communities of people into poverty or into second-class citizenship. Some focus exclusively on empowering individuals politically so they have the means to vote their oppressors out of office. Still others believe that market forces can most effectively eliminate the causes of social disparities. And some—because I know my colleague Bill Schambra will try to raise this point—don’t really give a flea’s nipple about the root causes of our social ills. For them, philanthropy for social justice is not the same as Bill’s benighted “root causes philanthropy” which he’s been attempting to stamp out for the past 90 years. These grantmakers argue that you don’t have to dig around too much to find the causes of many injustices: these causes are in plain sight.
Far more interesting than the question, “What is social philanthropy?” in my view, are the questions, “How do you do it well?” and “Why is it important?”
I’ll leave the question of how you do it well to our discussion this afternoon, if anyone wants to ask, but I will say this about its significance.
There are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of practitioners across the world who self-identify as social justice grantmakers. It constitutes, I would argue, one of the largest schools of thought in contemporary philanthropy.
There is often, in much of social justice philanthropy, an implied critique of liberal philanthropy-as-usual. The image that always comes to mind is a group of grantmakers standing by a river, pulling drowned, injured, half-dead bodies out of the water, bandaging some and burying others, but never thinking to wander upstream to find out where these bodies are coming from and why.
Venturing to ask that question, “Where are the bodies coming from?” is the essence of philanthropy for peace and social justice.
Championing what I’ve called social justice philanthropy, by the way, implies no critique of charity, or checkbook philanthropy. It does imply, in my view, that if you’re trying to end poverty, or reform public education, or make housing affordable, then you’d be a fool not to attend to the social justice dimensions of the issue you’re addressing.
In this way, philanthropy for social justice and peace is intimately connected to ongoing discussions in the field about measurable impact and strategic giving. For a very wide range of social issues, the effectiveness of the grantmaker is profoundly compromised if he fails to consider such things as the effects of racism or sexism; the manner in which power and privilege are held and brokered in a given community; the structural arrangements that benefit one caste at the expense of another; and a host of other factors that are typically the focus of the social justice grantmaker.
Lest I be accused of attempting to skirt the question that brought us here today, I do want to admit that I have a dog in the definitional fight. I quiver like a bowl of lime Jello whenever I consider the Shared Values tradition of social justice philanthropy outlined in the paper. This tradition asserts that social justice can be most effectively promoted by appealing to universal or near-universal values.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a special genius for reminding us of values that we share, values like liberty and fairness.
Our sense of fairness is especially powerful. There’s a long line of thinkers—John Rawls among them, by the way—stretching back thousands of years, who saw justice as a kind of fairness.
What’s most interesting to me about our sense of fairness is that it doesn’t appear to be confined to the human species. In 2003, researchers taught a group of capuchin monkeys to exchange tokens for food. Usually when these monkeys swapped a token, they got a piece of cucumber in return. But if one of these capuchins saw another monkey get a grape—a more desirable food—then all hell would break lose.
The offended monkey would fling poo; or decry the researchers’ liberal bias; or simply become sullen and uncooperative.
The scientists who conducted this experiment suggested that capuchins might share, to some degree, our sense of fairness.
We know from our own experience that a sense of fairness crosses party lines and international borders. In our country, there’s wide agreement that there should be no public laws, policies, or procedures that overtly or inadvertently discriminate against women, racially defined groups, groups defined by religion, and others to diminish their life chances.
Put another way, many of us agree that the playing field should be level for all.
But there is, as many of you know, strong evidence that the playing field has not been level for all, and that this unlevel playing field has undermined our human and social capital. The evidence comes in three forms:
First, there are in fact discriminatory laws, policies, and procedures that affect whole classes of individuals. For example, discrimination against gay and lesbian people in employment, housing, and other domains is still legal in many states. And there are many examples of legal discrimination affecting other groups, including so-called “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies in public schools, and laws that make it difficult for ex-offenders to find jobs and reintegrate into society once they’ve paid their dues.
Second there is strong evidence that racism and other forms of bigotry continue to affect the lives of individuals and the communities they belong to. This evidence comes not only from the lived experience of individuals who suffer sometimes daily assaults on their dignity, but also from empirical research that continues to document the effects of explicit and/or unconscious bigotry. Decades of matched pair tests and other studies, for example, have provided strong evidence of racial bias in the workplace and other domains.
Finally, focusing just on race for the moment, the disparities in health, housing, education, employment, and other outcomes between black Americans and white Americans appear too great and too persistent to be explained solely as the historical artifacts of slavery and Jim Crow. To review some of what’s inside the chamber of horrors:
- 69 percent of black children can’t read at grade level in the 4th grade, compared with 29 percent of white children. (That 29 percent of white children can’t read at grade level in the 4th grade is itself completely barbarous.)
- One-and-a-half million black men out of a total voting population of 10.4 million have lost their right to vote due to felony convictions.
- One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under correctional supervision or control.
- Close to half of all black children live below the federal poverty line (a bar that’s set embarrassingly low).
- The net worth of black families is $6,100; the net worth of white families is $67,000.
Even if we disagree about the causes of these disparities, we can agree that these disparities hurt us all and require a special effort to address them. They undermine the human and social capital we need to advance economically, and they can lead to social unrest and worse.
So there we have it.
Justice as a kind of fairness.
Social justice philanthropy as an alternative to what I sometimes call “philanthropy in bad faith.”
Social justice philanthropy as a challenge to those who, for example, want to reform public education, but haven’t the slightest clue why, at one point in our history, we let our public schools start falling down around the ears of children who are black and poor.
I realize this is a tough sell. I’m reminded of the Italian proverb that everybody loves justice—in the affairs of another. But I’m also inspired by Matt Groening’s observation that while the courts may not be working any more, as long as everyone is videotaping everyone else, there’s still a chance that justice will be done.