Racism, Democracy, and the Role of Nonprofits

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Last week Inside Higher Ed (IHE) ran a story on the recent resignation of the longstanding chair of the board of trustees of Roger Williams University.  The trustee, Ralph R. Papitto was also a major benefactor of the university. Apparently, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges had warned the trustees last April that the board's lack of diversity could threaten the school's accreditation. In May, during an apparently heated discussion following the warning, Mr. Pappito was reported by fellow board member Dr. Barbara H. Roberts to have used the "N word." According to Roberts, Papitto said: "They want us to add more poor kids and they want us to add more, well, I can't call them 'niggers,' I learned that from Imus."

According to the IHE article "Papitto's memory of the event is only a little different. 'We were talking about Latinos, underprivileged, Vietnamese, people who are qualified and not qualified and that kind of thing,' he said. One of the topics was trustee selection, and Papitto said he said that 'it's easy to put a trustee on, but it's a son of a gun to get one off,' and that somewhere in there, he made the slur."

When three fellow board members called for his resignation, they were ousted instead. In discussing their removal, Papitto assailed them on their loyalty to the institution. "Trustees are committed to confidentiality, so how would anybody else know about it unless they went out and discussed it?"

Thank goodness these three understood their stewardship in broader and more socially relevant terms. There were, incidentally, only two women on the board of 16 and they were among the three that protested the slur.

In general, as a recent study from the Urban Institute reveals, women are better represented than this on nonprofit boards, but in terms of race and ethnicity the study found that homogeneity rules the day. Fully 51% of all nonprofit boards are composed soley of white non-Hispanic members. Even when the organization serves high numbers of minority group members, "notable percentages of them include no corresponding minority group board members. Among nonprofits whose clientele is over 50% black or African American, 18% include no black or African American trustees. Among nonprofits whose clientele is 25% to 49% African American, 36% have no black or African American board members. The percentages are even higher for Hispanics/Latinos: among nonprofits whose clientele is over 50% Hispanic Latino, 32% have no Hispanic/Latino members, and the figure climbs to 52% among those whose clientele is 25% to 49% Hispanic/Latino."

This kind of systemic under-representation is part and parcel of institutional racism. It robs people of their rights to self-determination in the very sector that is supposed to embody the soul of pluralistic democracy.

Whenever one is faced by such a systemic problem, it is important to look at the spoken and powerful-but-no-longer-spoken-in-polite-company (at least without the assumption of confidentiality) belief systems that uphold it. Papitto had ruled the roost at Roger Williams as a board member for 40 years and board chair for the past 18 years, installing friends and family members on the board. His contributions earned him his name on the law school there. We in nonprofits always have to think carefully about such power relationships based on money — and what they lead us to.

In a way, Papitto may have done us all a favor by speaking his truth. Openly stated and widely aired, his sentiments will offend most of us but I would suggest that confronted with these and the Urban Institute study each of us should be motivated to look at his or her own board for its capacity to represent the world views of those our organizations are meant to benefit.

To help our readers think about the issue of unsurfaced, under-representation, I have linked two articles printed some time ago in NPQ's issue on Race and Power: Color Blind or Just Plain Blind The Pernicious Nature of Contemporary Racism, by John F. Dovidio and Samuel L. Gaertner; and Does Racism in Motion Have to Stay in Motion? Nonprofits as a Force Against Structural Racism, by john powell.

I have also linked an article from our most recent issue about representation and governance and community engagement in our nonprofit institutions by Judy Freiwirth entitled "Engagement Governance for System-Wide Decision Making" [PDF]. I hope that it opens up some new considerations for adjusting your directional systems.