There is nothing scarier to white supremacy than a Black man (or, for that matter, a Black woman) in power. This is not a theory. Black CEOs make up only one percent of the Fortune 500. In Atlanta, nonprofits led by Black men received only seven percent of COVID-19 Relief funding, but the Black population of the city is more than 51 percent and we’ve had Black mayors for more than 45 years!
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have produced generations of Black male leaders who have contributed to the progress of the country and the world. Since the Civil Rights movement, of course, many Black men have risen up out of white-dominated institutions too, although HBCUs continue to make a disproportionate contribution to Black male leadership.
The leadership offered by Black men continues to expand. But the contribution of Black male leaders—that real, fearless leadership—in many ways is seen as more of a threat to the status quo than a contribution to the betterment of society. We see the ramifications of this threat in the assassination of our leaders both literally and figuratively, and in the disproportionate number of Black men incarcerated, gunned down by police, and marginalized in corporate America, among nonprofits, and in philanthropy.
According to Bridgespan’s report, Racial Equity and Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table, 92 percent of foundation presidents and 83 percent of full-time staff members are white, while the majority of the work of foundations and philanthropy is built and funded off of the pain of Black people. Similar data have been found in the nonprofit sector as well, as reports from both the Building Movement Project and BoardSource illustrate.
Black suffering is so often fuel to the nonprofit sector, but our intellect rarely guides it, let alone benefits from that sector. It’s the same old story. Black labor builds America, but Black labor profits very little.
I never got into the nonprofit arena to get rich. I was called to this work after tiring of seeing others profit from my work, and after witnessing far too much Black suffering. I started the Partnership for Southern Equity over a decade ago to cultivate an environment where our team has the ability to bring their full selves to our work while lifting up the communities that we love so dearly.
And that’s what I want for any Black man stepping into this work—a chance to be fully who you are, so you can show up with character and authenticity and can do what you were called to do. While my intentions are good, I’ve learned over the past 10 years that it takes more than just vision to realize this dream. It takes hard work, dedication, humility, courage, and faith. As a Black man, you need all of that when you take a stand for what’s right, especially in light of COVID-19 and the multiple uprisings across this nation against systemic racism.
Many months into the pandemic, a month after the injustice handed down in the Breonna Taylor case, and weeks after a new federal government attack on critical race theory training was launched, now is the time for the vision that I and others like me share to become a reality and engage Black men throughout the nonprofit sector. This is the time where our intellect is honored just as much or more than our labor. This is the time to shape a new way forward that is inclusive and honors Black women so they too are not seen as revenue generators or communications tokens for nonprofits.
This is also the time for old Black male leadership to not be intimidated by young leadership. Since the beginning of slavery, Black men have faced an insidious complex—the magic Negro—being the “onlyest” one that white people and the Powers That Be turn to. This complex has worked its way into how nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropy are designed, when you only see two or three Black men in an organization at a time. While some have used those positions to help, historically many in those positions have oppressed the rise of young Black male leadership by sticking around too long. I get it, you’ve arrived, but what about those who are coming after you? Young leaders are building on the work of the senior leaders who have come before them. They are not coming in to make senior leaders irrelevant. That’s the lie that white supremacy has sold us for hundreds of years. It is time for legacy Black male leaders to shift their thinking from the fear of irrelevancy to becoming the harbingers of collaboration and healing.
If our leaders of old have taught us anything, it’s the need to take care of ourselves in this work. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, and Congressman John Lewis were looked at as superhuman because they were not allowed to be human. They carried the burden of leadership, especially in their physical bodies, and while Dr. Lowery and Congressman Lewis held on until this summer, we lost Dr. King and so many others before their time. The recent passing of our friend and colleague, Cecil Corbin-Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, at the young age of 51 was a particular shock. The reality is that