Chicago’s Black Community Challenges MacArthur Foundation to Do More


June 29, 2016, Hyperallergic

Philip Jackson at the Black Star Project recently took his rhetorical case against the MacArthur Foundation to the streets in the form of a “Children’s March.” Jackson’s community is making a new demand:

The children of Chicago are demanding that $100 million of the $7 billion MacArthur Foundation has in assets be used to invest in Black communities and help Black children in Chicago survive violence in their communities.

Zoe Mendelson at Hyperallergic suggests that the Black Star project’s campaign “asks troubling questions about the ethics of cultural philanthropy in times of crisis.” When the MacArthur Foundation offered a response to Jackson’s op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business, Mendelson pointed out that while the foundation’s philanthropy in Chicago is impressive, its response to Jackson’s charges failed to address his primary complaint that the foundation’s “2015 grantees lacked black-led organizations.”

Jackson wrote his op-ed a few days before the Memorial Day weekend, over which 64 people were shot and six died. A few days after Memorial Day, the MacArthur Foundation announced 100 & Change, a global competition for a $100 million grant to fund a proposal that solves “a significant problem.” After a close call where Chicago Public Schools almost did not open in the fall because of political gridlock, some Chicagoans might find the timing of this new MacArthur Foundation initiative at best insensitive and at worst indicative of perceived indifference on the part of the foundation. (Of course, the shocking violence erupting across the U.S. places an even harsher glare on this stubborn debate.)

A new Pew Research Center survey may help us better understand why the MacArthur Foundation and Philip Jackson are having such a difficult time finding common ground: “On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart.”

Arguably, solving racism is beyond the reach of grantmaking. This national crisis won’t necessarily be solved by spending $100 million, or even $100 billion. “Strategic Philanthropy“ is helpless in the face of this volatile challenge.

Philanthropy tempts us at the point of our carefully planned programs: not that we strive to have them all fully funded, but that we might think of nothing else and devote ourselves to them at the expense of striving for authentic solidarity with the people we are trying to help.

Philanthropy tempts us at the point of our ambitions: not that we actively exclude others, but that we learn to live with racism and maintain a discreet silence in its presence.

Philanthropy tempts us at the point of our goals: not that our aims are not worthy, but that we want to be the heroes.

NPQ has written extensively of racism—naming it, addressing it, and pointing out the ways it is hidden just out of sight in nearly every aspect of modern society. Here is the conclusion to an article by John Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner:

In conclusion, we can no longer be passive bystanders to racism. We have to hold ourselves responsible. Abstaining from wrongdoing that is immediately obvious to us is not enough. It doesn’t begin to address the now convoluted and confusing nature of contemporary racism. In order to address contemporary racism, even and especially among well-intentioned people, it is necessary to establish new, positive norms for action that replace our current norms for avoidance of responsibility.

All of this having been said, we could well imagine (and even long for) a scenario wherein the MacArthur Foundation breaks its own mode and makes a different kind of Big Bet—partly symbolic and partly dead practical—taking that $100 million out of its asset base rather than its grant budget to weigh in and make a statement about the importance of this moment.—James Schaffer

  • Mathieu Despard

    This article touches on – though I wish it further explored – 2 key issues in philanthropy: pros/cons of more aggressive spend-out (i.e., beyond the 5% minimum IRS requirement) and an emerging awareness that nonprofits by and for racial and ethnic minority communities lack the financial support enjoyed by other (read: majority-led) nonprofits (see This latter issue is expressed on the global stage, with NGOs by and for people in countries they serve struggling to survive while large foundation and bi/multilateral agency dollars flow to international NGOs.

  • Nikki

    I have two perspectives on this situation. Being a Southerner, I’m a bystander. I also feel to some extent the contempt that individuals in these communities with large private foundations kind of thumbing their noses at certain areas, certain ethnic groups, regions of the nation, and issues in preferences for the ones that tend to be familiar and more comfortable to their board members. I’ve seen both sides of this coin and neither is appropriate.

    How can Blacks in Chicago ask this foundation (a foundation founded by White individuals) to do something that other Black celebrities haven’t done to the same extent (i.e Michael Jordan, Oprah, President Obama, Terrence Howard, R.Kelley, etc.). Is it always the obligation of White America to clean up some of the self-inflicted ills of the Black community? It’s the thing that White America says their so sick of. Another situation in which Blacks act as if someone always needs to do something for them. Yet another demand, and another failure to acknowledge their own faults as it relates to the state of the community’s problems.

    On the other hand when I look at the board of directors of the MacArthur Foundation, I see the “usually” attempt to look diverse with the sprinkling of one of a few minority groups present in a photo. Yet what is see in reality is that the board is overwhelming White, much like most of America’s corporate boards. Their giving and focuses tend to be lead in part by their own White biases (known and unknown), and preconceived notions (true or otherwise). I think foundations need to take inventory in giving practices and board makeup to determine whether they are truly doing their part to combat racism and bridge the gaps they were created to eliminate. Otherwise, it’s just another instance of privilege at it’s finest, and another opportunity to practice sanctioned racism overtly. Not saying it’s right or wrong, it is what it is.

    If we continue to ignore and discount certain groups, use data to make decisions about them instead of actually talking to them (all of them not just the token leaders), you’re going to continue to have angry people backed into corners ready to fight. We need to open our eyes and see. We need to open our mouths, and communicate. No matter how painful it may be.