A clay hand, holding a broken purple eggshell, from which a vine grows
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During the Civil War, American newspapers played a major role in shaping public opinion and, in many cases, helping give pseudo-intellectual heft to racist ideologies. Among the many newspapers guilty of such behavior was the Sun, today known as the Baltimore Sun, whose news coverage and editorial opinions promoted racist ideas and profited substantially from running advertisements for the selling of enslaved people and offering rewards for those enslaved people who had escaped. The Washington Post similarly benefited from such ads.

The profits of those newspapers helped build the wealth behind several modern-day charitable foundations, notably the William S. Abell Foundation, created by the great-grandson of the Sun’s founder; and the Meyer Foundation, named for the former owner of the Post.

Reparative work…has been largely ignored by philanthropy.

It’s just one example, among a multitude, of the racist roots of philanthropy, laid out in a new report, Cracks In the Foundation: Philanthropy’s Role in Reparations for Black People in the DMV, by the DC-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. The report dives deep, identifying four sectors driving harm against the local Black community: media, housing, employment, and healthcare.

The report by NCRP lays bare how those at the helm of institutions across these sectors—including many DC and “DMV” (District of Columbia, southern Maryland, and northern Virginia) foundations—gained their wealth at least in part by profiting from anti-Black racism. And this, argue the four-author team of Katherine Ponce, Elbert Garcia, Timi Gerson, and Ryan Schlegel, is why reparations by philanthropy are required.

While the report is itself specifically focused on the greater Washington, DC, area, its findings and call to action have implications for the wider philanthropic field, as well as for the public and private sectors.

Putting Reparative Work Up Front

There is a difference between funding Black liberation causes and engaging in the work of reparations.

The NCRP report argues that reparative work—work explicitly and directly aimed at correcting the wrongs of racism in America—has been largely ignored by philanthropy, despite the sector’s role in perpetuating and profiting from racial harm. For example, the report finds that in most years, only about 1 percent of all grantmaking from private foundations specifically names Black people as beneficiaries.

“This underrepresentation highlights the need for a more comprehensive and intentional effort to rectify historical injustices and promote the equitable distribution of resources within the philanthropic sector,” the report states.

And while the report’s authors welcome and applaud greater philanthropic investment in racial justice, especially since the 2020 “racial reckonings” following the murder of George Floyd and other high-profile killings of Black Americans by police, they stress that there is a difference between funding Black liberation causes and engaging in the work of reparations:

Increased funding to Black communities and racial justice work—while critical—is not the same as reckoning with harm done to specific Black people through the wealth origins of an individual institution. In fact, despite the sector’s increased promises in 2020, messages of solidarity have dwindled, and black communities are still underfunded. That is why a number of Black-led organizations and their allies pushed for funder accountability for past harm and redress for the current inequitable grantmaking structures many funders continue to protect and preserve (2).

The NCRP describes this report as “an opportunity for philanthropic actors to exercise responsibility by finding ways to repair, heal and restore local communities harmed by the actions and decisions that created charitable wealth.”

Honest Conversations, Telling Wealth Stories

Philanthropic leaders can begin the process of addressing historic wrongs by “leading honest and potentially painful conversations around philanthropy’s role in past harm,” the report states.

To this end, the report offers eight case studies of foundations within the DMV area, detailing the ways they profited from anti-Black racism.

In addition to the newspaper wealth mentioned above, the report points to the role of fortunes built on the real estate sector which, in various ways, has embodied systemic racism—in the form of racist zoning laws and other discriminatory practices, and in its role in facilitating the ongoing stark racial wealth gap. White households in Washington, DC, the report notes, possess 81 times the wealth of Black households—much of that wealth being linked to real estate.

One of the case studies features the Horning Family Foundation, which originally gained wealth from building homes in low-income neighborhoods that were “so poorly structured that after organizing residents, the city government stepped in with mechanics liens against the Horning Brothers to try to force payment for the unsafe living conditions in the residencies that they built during urban renewal projects.”

Other relevant origins of philanthropic fortunes: racist economic exploitation—ranging from slavery itself to unfair and racist labor practices to racist antagonism of organizing efforts; or the physical and/or mental health toll imposed upon Black people as a result of racist practices embraced by those who forged future philanthropic fortunes. That toll is stark. According to the report, in Washington, DC, “Black men live 17 years less on average than their white counterparts—for Black women, it is 12 years less.”

Such historic self-examination, the report argues, can and should lay the foundation for engaging in reparative work:

By compiling, contextualizing and publishing biographical and other historical information about the origins of philanthropic wealth, the stories of harm experienced by Black people become unavoidable and, more importantly, actionable – especially for funders with a commitment to racial equity or racial justice (5).

The authors argue that in “this critical time of national reflection on and reckoning with centuries of racial oppression, philanthropy must actively engage in the conversation and respond with urgency, specificity and targeted action.” 

“Make reparations to people and communities that have been directly harmed by the way the foundation’s wealth was generated.”

A Five-Step Roadmap toward Reparative Justice

 Beginning with the kind of honest self-assessment described above, the report lays out a five-step process by which philanthropic institutions can begin to reckon with and act upon their role in harm done to Black communities (5):

  1. Reckon: “Lead a transparent exploration of your foundation’s wealth-generation story, making evidence of past harms available to community residents and culminating with a public apology for past harms and commitment to end any related current harms.”
  2. Connect: “Develop a community working group to work directly with and solicit ideas and solutions from those that have been directly impacted by the actions that generated foundation wealth.”
  3. Repair: “Make reparations to people and communities that have been directly harmed by the way the foundation’s wealth was generated through direct cash payments, infrastructure investments and vouchers aimed to close the wealth gap.”
  4. Decolonize: “Embrace a plan and dedicated time-bound goals to decolonize institutional structures, policies and practices through regular grantmaking, endowment growth strategy and power sharing.”
  5. Advocate: “Support racial healing efforts and publicly advocate for a local municipal reparations bill and the current strategy of the reparation’s movement under this administration, including a federal executive order creating a reparations commission.”

A Matter of Relationship

In essence, the NCRP is calling upon philanthropic institutions to reevaluate and reimagine their relationships with both the sources and recipients of their wealth, all toward an explicit agenda of reparation.

The report represents a direct challenge to the status quo, in which reparations, to the extent the issue is considered at all, are often perceived as belonging to the realm of legislative and governmental solutions—not an obligation of the philanthropic sector.

Yet foundations and other philanthropic institutions possess the powers to both engage in reparative work themselves and to use their influence and wealth to advocate for reparations programs, especially at the local level: “The private and public sectors must be part of advocating for city, state and federal reparations programs,” the report states.

Such work is best accomplished, however, within a community-centered framework, the authors argue, with philanthropic institutions examining their relationship to the communities in which they live.

“We believe that our community-centered research framework provides a chance for foundations to stand on the right side of history,” the report states. “This is an opportunity not just to learn from the pain of the past, but to take real, practical steps to help communities heal.”