“City” by Lily Yakupova. ©2016, used under license.

Two very important reports were recently released—Black Futures Lab’s More Black than Blue: Politics and Power in the 2019 Black Census and Building Movement Project’s Nonprofit Executives and the Racial Leadership Gap. While the former covers US politics and the latter the US nonprofit sector, their core points have a lot in common. They both find that there are two key factors that impact communities of color in the US, especially Black communities—inequity in access to resources and political power.

The reports highlight the fact that Black people’s needs are not getting met. More Black than Blue, “the largest survey of Black people in America in 154 years,” is upfront about the fact that it has a political purpose: “to make the case that Black communities are not getting our needs met from politics.” Similarly, Nonprofit Executives and the Racial Leadership Gap, a series that explores the leadership aspirations and experiences of people of color in the nonprofit sector, finds that “the data shows that people of color in executive positions report higher rates of common challenges and frustrations than white EDs/CEOs.” In comparing the experiences of EDs/CEOs to staff within race, the report finds that while white leaders experience more ease as they move up in their careers, leaders of color continue to experience similar levels of frustration. It concludes that leaders of color generally do not “reap the advantages of leadership.”

Access to Resources

More Black finds that, overall, respondents are concerned about economic hardship and inequality and unjust and ineffective policing. Low wages coupled with the high cost of living leads to Black families that are not economically sustainable. Further, it is well known that poor people pay more for lesser-quality goods and services. To add widespread and systemic racism to this would be incredibly cruel, but this is exactly the case. Respondents want government policies that help Black people be more economically secure. Including,

  1. Affordable and quality health care (90 percent)
  2. A right to housing and provide adequate housing (87 percent)
  3. Guaranteed higher wages, starting with a $15 an hour minimum wage (85 percent)
  4. Affordable college education for any who want it (84 percent)

They also agree that these policies should be funded with redistributive strategies that address the economic gap between rich and poor.

Racial Leadership Gap finds that “EDs/CEOs of color felt they had to work harder and longer to prove themselves before being hired for executive positions in the nonprofit sector.” When they do move into executive positions, the majority of EDs/CEOs of color lead what the report calls “identity-based organizations.” While the report highlights the reality that many leaders of color live in the nonprofit sector, with this label it unintentionally reinforces the notion that white-led organizations are not identity-based—they are, the identity being white. This is more than semantics, as part of what leads to the under-resourcing of people of color-led organizations is the sense that they are niche organizations, while the white-led organizations are universal. This “white as neutral” frame is a core tool or weapon in the narrative of race-based domination. As the report illustrates, this framing is used even in efforts to advance racial justice.

For example, one currently popular foundation approach to racial justice is to focus on “infrastructure organizations,” those considered key to the work of the sector, which may seem strategic, except for the fact that they are generally predominantly white organizations in which the currency is academic credentials and dominant narratives about the marginalized, over firsthand experience and connection and accountability to impacted communities. The racial justice change strategy is to push these white organizations to be more inclusive. Further, “identity-based organizations” receive smaller grants than “more established” organizations doing similar work. Because white organizations are bigger and more established—like the “too big to fail” argument that propped up dominant corporations after the 2008 financial crisis—they receive even more money, and the perception that this work is difficult and takes a long time becomes the frame for change. This foundation trend significantly impacts “identity-based organizations” as, the study notes, they often have foundation grants as the largest source of funding, compared to white-led organizations. The cumulative result is that the people-of-color-led organizations that are already doing the work of racial justice continue to lag behind white organizations in terms of resources, recognition, and thought leadership, even on the issue of racial justice.

The report confirms this. Though the work of racial justice has been developing in the sector over the last two decades, the report finds differences in average budgets of respondent organizations, with leaders of color having $1.3 million to the white leader’s $1.7 million. Many respondents report “lack of relationship to funding sources,” “inadequate salaries,” and “being called on to represent a community” as key challenges. However, both leaders of color and white leaders rated themselves similarly in rating their own fundraising ability (52 and 59 percent respectively). Further inquiry finds that it is not the fundraising skill of leaders of color, but access to institutions, networks, and people that accounts for this funding equity gap.

There is evidence that the currently popular funding approach to racial justice may not be strategic for dismantling systemic racism, for, in spite of the challenges leader of color face, the report finds that it is under-resourced “identity-based organizations” that are addressing structural racism, mostly through training efforts. Predominantly white organizations seeking to address issues of race continue to find it very challenging. The report notes that “the nonprofit sector faces uncertainty about what organizational actions, initiatives and steps best align with stated values related to equity and inclusion,” but this also not a neutral statement, as it seems that this is primarily a challenge in white organizations.

Political Power

More Black respondents are also deeply concerned about “the illegitimate use of force by the police and the prevalence of gun violence in Black communities.” In particular, 87 percent of respondents consider “the killing of Black people by police officers” a top challenge, and 83 percent identify “excessive use of force by police officers.” More than half, 55 percent, have experienced a negative interaction with the police, with 28 percent of these occurring within the last six months, and over a third (38 percent) before the age of 18. In fact, “Gun violence is the single most common cause of death for Black children and teenagers.” Further, 84 percent report that “police officers [are] not being held accountable for their crimes.” Not surprisingly, the most popular solution (at 73 percent) is “ensuring that officers are held accountable for their misconduct.” Pretty basic really, but lessened ability to protect oneself as a person of color, especially a Black person, is at the core of racialized societies. The report acknowledges this context when it notes that, “Policing of Black communities has always been a site of contention.”

Racial Leadership Gap similarly finds that people of color in the nonprofit sector have to be vigilant about protecting ourselves from bodily harm. It finds that, “Perhaps because EDs/CEOs of color face similar challenges and frustrations as those in staff roles while also bearing the added pressures of executive leadership, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of people of color in leadership roles had experienced training in ‘self-care and wellness,’ compared to roughly two-thirds (65 percent) of white nonprofit executives.” Further, “In focus groups and interviews, leaders of color, particularly women, talked about the pressures of their workload resulting in negative health outcomes, including those requiring medical intervention.”

It is no surprise. These leaders do work that the whole world is designed against, including our sector. They are asked to use narratives that don’t make sense and are then under resourced. All of this can make you sick. It is a sickness that comes from the mindfuck that we have to normalize—the idea that white organizations and white people are the norm. The dominant does not see itself. It sees the subordinated and then further marginalizes it by cutting it off from access to resources and power. These leaders are set up to fail.

These two core issues—limited access to resources and political power which, at its extreme, results in higher incidences of bodily harm and violence—are not new. In the US, they date back to the colonization of this land and its development through slavery. These are simply modern versions of that. In fact, they are core design factors of structural racism; our systems are designed to produce suboptimal and even harmful outcomes for people of color, including the nonprofit sector.

Racial Leadership Gap recommends “advocacy to convince foundations to do their grantmaking with a racial equity lens.” It explains, “While it is certainly important to diversify leadership overall, in the short-term funders and donors that want to support diverse leadership may need to change or expand the types of organizations they fund to support existing leadership by people of color.” Yes.

More Black concludes: “We know that the challenges facing Black communities are complex, and the solutions to those challenges require innovation, experimentation, and Black political power.” We can say the same about our sector, which has unthinkably recreated many of the problems it seeks to address in the larger society.

Taken together, these two studies point to the need to focus on strategies that shift resources to people of color and build our political power, the power to set the frame and create the rules. At this point, anything else falls short.