Half a Century after the Civil Rights Act, Four Challenges for Nonprofits and Foundations Today

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Civil Rights Act

Whether it was because of the political skills of President Lyndon Baines Johnson or the combined activities of many members of Congress, Justice Department officials, and civil rights leaders, fifty years ago the nation saw the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Half a century later, many observers, including Congressman John Dingell (who was in Congress back then), Andrew Young (who was a civil rights leader at the time), and historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin have doubts whether the same legislation could have gotten through today’s Congress and White House.

Dingell ascribed the challenge to changes in Congress—lawmakers making prepared statements from the floor for consumption back home, regardless of what anyone had to say before or after, aiming for the television cameras rather than informed, topical debate. Kearns Goodwin suggested that today’s politics is just too ugly and partisan, focused on positions from the parties’ extreme wings, and preoccupied with campaign fundraising rather than governing. “People disagreed vehemently, but they were not disagreeable,” Young added. “They still remained friends and looked for a common ground.”

They are all partly right about the reasons why inaction would be likely were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the agenda for 2014, but they needn’t have looked backwards to make the point. Despite annual promises from both sides of the aisle, the nation hasn’t been able to muster up a congressional vote on comprehensive immigration reform during the entirety of Barack Obama’s term in office. Republicans fought against national healthcare reform with unparalleled vehemence, and then upon its enactment have done all they could to make it inoperable, including leading nearly half of the states of the union to reject Medicaid expansion, disproportionately affecting persons of color. Although African-Americans have suffered rates of unemployment and long-term unemployment double those of whites, the nation has been unable to come to an agreement about extending long-term unemployment benefits, much less taking needed action to lead the long-term unemployed back into the count of the employed.

It adds up to an unfinished civil rights agenda in the U.S., but one that is different in major ways from the issues that were presented to LBJ and his attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, as they and others crafted the legislation that exists today. For those of us who remember those times and the difficulties that followed, particularly in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the fight for civil rights is not a one-time event. It wasn’t simply horse-trading between LBJ and members of Congress, but the result of a movement of community-based and national organizations that compelled government to act. Amid changes in the nation’s political environment, civil rights and racial justice as items on the agendas of nonprofit organizations take on different forms. A few struck us as relevant here: some large, some symbolic, but all substantively important for operating foundations as well as grantmaking charities.

Disclosure and diversity

Some years ago, California foundations, later joined by foundations around the nation, vigorously protested a bill introduced in the California state assembly by Assemblyman Joe Coto that would have required some kind of accounting for the racial composition of the top staffing, governing trustees, and grant recipients of California’s largest foundations. As a substitute for the legislation, a deal was cut between the foundations and the legislature for a list of foundation commitments for capacity-building support just before the economy tanked and then tanked again, making the prospect of increased levels of foundation grantmaking for organizations led by people of color a faint memory. Foundations that had been aggressive in calling for disclosure and transparency in the composition of public commissions and corporate boards dismissed the idea that it might be important to know at the least the racial and ethnic composition of the men and women in charge of the nation’s tax-exempt charitable endowments.

Somehow, it is still a relevant factor in other venues, and in fact it should be. It matters that the racial composition of schools in the Buffalo School System, once a national model, has reverted back to the racial imbalances that were prevalent in the 1970s when a federal court first ordered school desegregation. It matters that the research shows that charter schools show an increased risk of racial segregation over traditional public schools.

But it also matters who controls the lever of power as well. The fact that Democrats as a demographic are far more racially diverse than Republicans is more than an interesting statistic. Racial diversity is seen as legitimately important in the composition and operations of juries in the American system of justice. It is not irrelevant that the number of NFL team head coaches who were persons of color decreased from eight in 2011 to four going into 2013, while the racial composition of NFL players in 2012 was 66.3 percent black and only 30.1 percent white. No one dictates to the NFL exactly who must be hired, but the League has devoted attention to the process to try to get more persons of color considered as head coaches and general managers. Why would asking these questions about institutional philanthropy be any less relevant as a matter of public discussion?

There is a kind of “trust us” dynamic in philanthropy and elsewhere that has made asking questions about the racial composition of the leadership of organizations déclassé. But last week, the last remaining plaintiff in the case that desegregated the schools of Pinellas County, Florida, died. Charles Calvert Rutledge and five others, with the backing of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, brought Leon W. Bradley Jr. vs. the Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County to the federal courts in 1964. Over the years, Pinellas initiated one strategy or another to demonstrate a modicum of compliance with the court order, but Rutledge continued to press for improvements in the education afforded black pupils.

“He told his grandchildren to look out,” his daughter, Janice Rutledge Mobley, a former teacher of the year at a Pinellas County high school, said. “Don’t let this whole thing revert back to what it was.

It is good advice for public schools, for governmental commissions, for private corporations, and for foundations—the last hardly in the forefront of racial justice over the years. That means not giving foundations a pass on reporting their racial and ethnic composition, even if there isn’t and perhaps shouldn’t be a mechanism for compelling any kind of specific racial-ethnic grantmaking. Despite much talk and debate within foundations about racial and ethnic diversity in recent years, progress is slow and halting. The proportion of foundation CEOs who are persons of color actually decreased between 2011 and 2012, according to Council of Foundations surveys, from 9.2 to 8.4 percent, and as executive vice presidents or assistant directors from 12.9 to 11.9 percent. The CEO proportion is above where it was in the mid-1990s, but seems to have stagnated in recent years. Regarding foundation trustees, a recent report from the Greenlining Institute examined the composition of foundation trustee boards and concluded that racial diversity had largely stagnated between 2009 and 2012. But putting the racial dimensions of American philanthropy into the public arena for analysis and debate is a legitimate endeavor—not one to be camouflaged by diversity statements and good intentions, but to be rigorously analyzed and highlighted by watchdogs such as the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation (publisher of Colorlines magazine), and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

One of the nation’s foremost leaders on issues of race and philanthropy has been Emmett Carson, currently president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “President Obama’s election did not usher in a new dialogue on race relations as many hoped,” he wrote last year. “Paradoxically, it reinforced the false ideas that racial equality in America has been achieved and a dialogue on race relations is unnecessary. In this post-racial America it is presumed that an individual’s success is largely based on one’s own talents, aspirations and fate, and that a person’s race or ethnicity is largely irrelevant in determining his or her future socio-economic success.” Why shouldn’t the consideration given to issues of racial equality or inequality in other venues of society apply to the leadership and governance of foundations as well?

Liberal and Conservative Grantmaking

Especially on issues of race, foundation grantmaking is often above criticism, in part because it’s so important just to see foundations addressing the topic. It has been particularly significant in the past couple of years, as a couple of dozen foundations experimented with grantmaking addressing the egregious disparities affecting young black men. To their credit, it was the foundations’ initiatives that pushed the Obama administration to announce the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, a high-profile White House effort to tackle the issues facing black men, albeit an initiative without any federal money attached.

But what counts as foundation grantmaking that addresses the structural obstacles that lead to and perpetuate disparate outcomes for black men and for many persons of color is a matter of debate. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, for example, has long promoted its “America Healing” initiative designed “to improve life outcomes for vulnerable children and their families by promoting racial healing and eliminating barriers to opportunities.” The former president and CEO of the foundation, Sterling Speirn, described one goal of America Healing as enabling communities “to have courageous conversations about race and historic and structural racism, and current racism.”

Supporting dialogue on race and racism is not quite the same as supporting actions aimed at undoing the policies and practices that, without much overt racial animus, maintain and institutionalize racial disparities in education, employment, and health. As we have noted before, it is easier to provide grant support for traditional mechanisms of responding to social inequity—for example, mentoring, youth programs, supplemental education, etc.—as evidenced in some of the new foundation initiatives that have been unveiled as aiming at racial disparities than it is to craft strategies that undo the disparities themselves. To be fair, the cumulative effects of decades or centuries of deprivation put on people of color in this country cannot be quickly undone by a few years of foundation grantmaking. However, grantmaking that couches traditional foundation responses in the new garb of addressing racism doesn’t necessarily make the grantmaking different or more effective.

In fact, the challenges of race in our society are not only thriving—witness Florida lawmakers’ recent attempts to strengthen rather than reduce or eliminate the state’s “stand-your-ground” law—but sometimes even unintentionally undermined by foundation grantmaking policies. Foundation programs touting educational reform initiatives around charter schools and private school vouchers may be proliferating under the guise of addressing and improving educational outcomes for inner city, low-income children, but increasing numbers of critics suggest that the evidence to make that case is simply not there. Moreover, the removal of children and funding from the public school systems may be contributing to weakening educational options for many children of color, focusing on improving test scores rather than the promotion of real learning.

Besides the stand-your-ground criminalization of young black men, the nation still faces voter ID and voter restriction laws that have demonstrably adverse consequences for communities of color (and sometimes emanate from lawmakers clearly aiming to restrict black and Latino voter turnout). The recent enrollment numbers for the Affordable Care Act sadly demonstrated the continuing disparate health insurance protections and healthcare outcomes for blacks and Latinos in general, particularly in states that have chosen to reject the opportunity for a federally funded expansion of their Medicaid coverage. Dialogue on race is a very worthwhile objective for foundation grantmakers, and mentoring by role models, long a core component of nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Clubs, is always a positive for young people, but these aren’t new and raise the question of what will take aim at the policies that inevitably lead to adverse outcomes for persons of color. Digging deeper into foundation grantmaking that makes progress on these issues and barriers ought to be a top civil rights agenda item for foundations today.

At the same time, conservative foundations have their own problem with race: the problem of ignoring it. Bob Woodson, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner who founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in 1981, is a deeply committed and principled conservative. In seminars and conferences on conservative philanthropy, Woodson has taken the dais to implore conservative foundations to overcome their view of “the least of God’s children” as a “sea of aliens.” He has called on conservative funders to stop their pronouncements on what is wrong with people of color—for example, the contention of Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute that the “lower half” of society was basically “emulating the black underclass”—and instead ask them what they want and need from society and then help them participate in devising the solutions they think might work.

The occasion for Woodson’s repeated efforts to get fellow conservatives in the worlds of think tanks and philanthropy to address issues of race, last year’s Bradley Awards symposium in which he made his “aliens” comment, was hardly his first time trying. In 2005, at an earlier Bradley Awards symposium convened by the Hudson Institute focusing on philanthropy, Woodson pressed the issue:

“The…thing conservatives have to do is on issues of race policies,” he said. “You always hear conservatives when there is a disgruntled white fireman, but never when there is a legitimate racial grievance by somebody who had been discriminated against.”

“I really think the way the liberals prevail with regard to poor people is because they show up…they appear to be doing something,” he added. “Conservatives are absent.”

If conservative foundations have anything to say about issues of race other than condemning the “lower half” for somehow being unable to handle “societal freedoms” well, as expressed by the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone, they had better do more than blame and disparage. They have to do something constructive and positive. “If we want to be credible to the public,” Woodson said in response to both Barone and MacDonald, “we should demonstrate how embracing [conservative] principles has a consequence of improving the quality of life for these people.”

Racial Omerta

In philanthropy’s concerted attempt to generate good press and avoid controversies that might pique the interest of members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, organized philanthropy has been reluctant, to put it mildly, to call out the misuse and abuse of philanthropy that institutionalizes derogatory racial images. The most obvious is the creation of the “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” a rather crude and heavy-handed instrument devised by Dan Snyder, the lead owner of Washington, D.C.’s National Football League franchise, to buy support and good press from Native Americans and others as he maintains a racial epithet as the team’s name. Despite the support Snyder has received from Roger Goodell of the National Football League and despite his own pledge never to change the team’s name, it is kind of obvious that in time, he will; Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) suggests that it will come within three years.

It is the misuse of philanthropy and the omerta of the foundation community about Snyder’s tactic that is distressing—and a backward step in the foundation sector’s commitment to civil rights and racial justice. Reid understood what Snyder is doing. “He’s going to throw a few blankets to the Indians and get a tax deduction for it,” Reid said. The foundation is “a phony deal, like everything else [he’s] done.”

Assume that most foundations are unwilling, either individually or collectively, to call out their peers on issues of executive compensation, trustee compensation, payout, and so forth for fear that “there but for the grace of God go I.” But calling out the heinous misuse and abuse of foundations as a cover for an institutionalized racial epithet doesn’t fall into that category. Failure to act is a mark on foundations. To be fair, however, it isn’t as though national nonprofit leadership organizations have been any more vocal than their foundation peers. It is easy to say that race or racial issues is outside their scope. But the lesson from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that racial justice and civil rights is never outside any organization’s mission. With a national platform comes an obligation to speak out against the use of charity and philanthropy to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Giving Snyder a pass makes foundations, whether liberal or conservative, look like they are more interested in sidestepping criticism of a philanthropic peer than confronting a racial injustice.

Immigration and deportation

Who would have ever expected President Obama to become the nation’s record-setting president in terms of deportations of undocumented immigrants? The president earned the sobriquet of “deporter in chief” from Janet Murguía, the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, partially because of his touting deportation numbers—400,000 a year, about 2 million total—that were even higher than what his administration had actually accomplished. After deporting more undocumented immigrants than any president in history, President Obama last month ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review its deportation practices.

Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Steve Israel have taken plenty of criticism for their recent comments that Republican opposition to immigration reform was connected to, in Israel’s words, a “Republican base [that] does have elements that are animated by racism,” but there is some truth in their comments. While many people have legitimate concerns about how to address immigration reform, it is hard to overlook the obvious antagonism of many toward immigrants of any sort, particularly Latinos, and the fears that many have about Latinos becoming dominant population groups in parts of the country.

The cause of immigration reform is a new component of the civil rights agenda for nonprofits and foundations that was hardly evident at all fifty years ago. The president’s policy of deportations, which he has often said he could not change because his hands were tied by Congress, is only one dimension of this civil rights agenda.

The design and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which excludes undocumented immigrants from any kind of subsidized coverage, institutionalizes the treatment of immigrants as somehow not entitled to the benefits and services they ought to get for having resided in this country (often for many years) and, despite contentions to the contrary, having paid far more into the nation’s governmental coffers in taxes than they have gotten back as services due to their undocumented status. According to Esther Yu-Hsi Lee in Think Progress, undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $10.6 billion in state and local taxes, together with their employers $13 billion in payroll taxes, and some $3 billion in Medicare contributions.

Breaking the stall on immigration reform is a significant component of the new civil rights agenda for nonprofits and foundations on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The fact that Congress has yet again been unable to mount a credible effort for immigration reform, and hasn’t since the days of President George W. Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy coming together to promote legislation, is a civil rights travesty that needs to be corrected.

Civil Rights on the Nonprofit Plate

One doesn’t often hear about issues of race as a sector-wide issue concerning nonprofits. Citing the findings of a study by Commongood Careers, blogger Rosetta Thurman titled a 2011 op-ed, “Nonprofits Don’t Really Care about Diversity.” Writing for BoardSource, Marion Conway noted a 2012 BoardSource survey that put the percentage of nonprofit CEOs who were white at 93 percent, up from 88 percent in 2010. Nearly one third of nonprofits in the BoardSource survey reported that their boards were 100 percent white.

Racial diversity is a pretty thin reed on which to pin hopes for nonprofit engagement around civil rights and racial equity. Racial and ethnic diversity constitutes a picture of an organization, not the substance of its values and commitments. But while the impulse for racial equity may be carried deeply and sincerely by many people of all races, it is more likely to be an issue ratcheted up on organizations’ agendas when the organizations have persons of color well represented among their staff, leadership, and board members.

It may be that there is a sincere belief that the U.S. has entered a post-racial stage, where issues of race and policies explicitly emphasizing race are passé. If LBJ were here today, he might not agree. Historians and biographers describe LBJ’s hardscrabble upbringing; he had to borrow $75 to attend Southwest Texas State Teachers College, he worked as a janitor to keep himself in school, and for a year he dropped out to teach at a school for Mexican-American children. Johnson remembered the circumstances of those children, taught, he once said, “that the end of life is in a beet row, a spinach field, or a cotton patch.”

“I guess he always felt like the underdog himself,” said former LBJ speechwriter and advisor Richard Goodwin, “and when he saw that happening to other people, he reacted against it.”

At a speech at the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit, President Obama said, “Deprivation and discrimination—these were not abstractions to Lyndon Baines Johnson. He knew that poverty and injustice are as inseparable as opportunity and justice are joined.” Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, LBJ would be all but assured to see the racial justice work that still lay unfinished. In the nation’s new political economy, he might turn to foundations and nonprofits and ask them what they were prepared to do to make civil rights and racial justice a reality for everyone.

Disclosure: Rick Cohen was the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. The publisher of Colorlines and executive director of Race Forward, Rinku Sen, was once on his board at NCRP, and he has written for the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.


  • Ken Steensma

    As a 1969 urban resident ‘futurist’ forecast…we are going to fight the wrong war (focus on reducing poverty)…the wrong way (assuming that top-down decision making will motivate self-initiative). What he didn’t anticipate was that when we knew that our strategy was not working, that we would continue the same strategy until we ran out of resources.

    This urban futurist did propose a simple strategy as an alternative…fight the right war (focus on empowering urban resident prosperity), the right way (bottom-up, empowerment based decision making by urban residents who self-direct their own strategy for personal and neighborhood transformation).

    All that is needed to complete this strategy is to open up new resourcing channels through the use of urban social entrepreneurship that enables the private sector to create measurable benefit by empowering profitable shared gain partnerships with urban residents who self-direct their own transformation.