Speaking at a discussion hosted by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, made this observation:
Oftentimes we miss moments to challenge the cultural conversation and we instantly go to policy. And I think that’s where we lose. We can’t have conversations outside of culture and where people are getting their information every day. We have to challenge that and hold those structures accountable the same way we want to hold elected officials accountable.
Rashad is right to say that many activists see policy change as the Holy Grail of social change efforts, or that, at the very least, they tend to underplay the role played by culture in keeping low-income communities marginalized. Activists and funders fall prey to the Systems Heresy: the belief that injustice is largely “structural,” that it’s the property of a system that regulates human behavior rather than a property of actors who are frequently all too human.
If policy change is difficult, the shifting of culture must seem impossible by comparison. It happens so slowly, so imperceptibly. We know from the history of large social change efforts in the United States—women’s suffrage, the ending of slavery—that shifts in cultural norms both precede and lag behind significant policy victories. Attitudes about women and African Americans continue to evolve. Unfortunately, the time scale for these cultural changes makes them unlikely candidates for foundation funding which is too often focused on the quick victory—or its simulacrum. Given that a cultural shift will take its own sweet time, is it even worth the attempt to accelerate the process?
If cultural change efforts do in fact get a raw deal from grantmakers (and I have no reason to doubt those who tell me they do), is it time for the foundation world to reassess its priorities? I’m struck by the fact that my colleagues seldom send me links to earnest reports about low-income communities. Instead my inbox brims with clips from The Colbert Report and The Daily Show skewering the attempts of policymakers to dismantle the safety net for the poor. Perhaps more effectively than any study of racial and economic disparities, movies such as Precious have reached millions of people capable of empathy and opened their eyes to the overwhelming challenges of living in poverty.
By contrast, so many reports on the plight of the marginalized have been dead on arrival. Just in the past three months, in my own beloved city, we’ve been overwhelmed by the bad news. This past June, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, alongside the Orleans Parish Place Matters team, published a report titled Place Matters for Health in Orleans Parish: Ensuring Opportunities for Good Health for All. Among its key findings was the fact that the average life expectancy in Orleans Parish varied by as much as 25 years depending on a person’s zip code of residence, and that those zip codes with the lowest life expectancy had a higher population of low-income and people of color. The poorest zip code in the city, with a majority population of African Americans, had an average life expectancy of 55 years while the zip code with less poverty and a mostly white population reached 80, a 25-year difference! Another report this past June from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center analyzed new census and other survey data to find, among other things, that 48 percent of our black children in Orleans Parish—that’s one in two—live in poverty, defined as an income of about $18,000 supporting a family of two adults and a child. A more recent report published by the Urban League found that nearly 30 percent of black students in New Orleans—that’s one in three—had been suspended or expelled from the Recovery School District, more than twice the statewide rate and over four times the national rate, due to stringent, zero-tolerance policies. These policies have left us with 14,000 youth between the age of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor employed. My foundation contributed to the long string of dismal news with its own study of asset poverty in New Orleans.
And yet there’s been no outcry, no wringing of hands, no rending of garments.
We need these data to understand the magnitude of the challenges that face us. Yet what a serious miscalculation to believe that numbers quantifying the misery of our neighbors are sufficient to move us to action. And here, I believe, is where we can learn from the cultural geniuses among us. They, much more than the rest of us, understand how to make lifeless numbers jump off the page; they have ideas for breathing life into depressing graphs of mostly downward trends.
One aspect of their genius is their appreciation of the complexity of culture. Culture to them is not a bone we gnaw on together, a dented fender we attempt to hammer smooth. It’s less like an object we bang on and more like the air we breathe, the invisible threads of meaning that connect us.
I fear that activists and funders might be stuck, unable or unwilling to embrace the key roles played by potent cultural forces such as empathy and shame-inducing satire. How can the champions of culture help us reinvigorate our sluggish steps toward social change? In the US context, perhaps, we’ll never acquire a culture in which public deliberation becomes a significant force. In this new Dark Age, dominated by the new American Visigoths—the Radical Religious Right, the anti-government activists—how can culture help truth gain a foothold?