Black Lives Matter plaza, Washington, DC, June 7, 2020. Photo by author.

This article is the first in a series of personal essays that NPQ, in partnership with Tony Pickett of the Grounded Solutions Network and Marcus Littles of Frontline Solutions, will publish in the coming weeks. Titled Black Male Leadership: Nonprofit Voices, Truth, and Power, the objective of this series is to lift up Black male voices to highlight the challenges Black male leaders in the nonprofit sector face, as well as the sector as a whole, amid ongoing anti-Black violence and the disparate racial impact of COVID-19.

Regardless of our individual success in overcoming racial bias and divisive narratives, Black male nonprofit leaders collectively far too often experience personal frustration due to unwarranted obstruction in exercising our full leadership power and creative potential.

This is not news, of course, but my colleague Marcus Littles of Frontline Solutions and I thought we needed to start a focused conversation in NPQ, because if we want to change conditions, we have to be able to name them.

Between now and early November, you’ll hear from both the two of us and a few of our fellow Black male nonprofit leaders as we explore leadership, race, and gender within the explosive cocktail that is America in 2020—a year marked by the most deadly global pandemic in over 100 years and our national uprising against anti-Black racism.

Of course, as Black male nonprofit leaders, we operate within this larger context. The well-documented racial bias in philanthropic funding that we frequently navigate is only part of a larger pattern of harsher judgements impacting Black men. Each of us knows from bitter experience that Black men in America are not now nor have we ever been totally free. We are not easily able to simply voice and implement our forward-thinking visions and proven solutions for societal issues, let alone innocently jog down a street during daylight in safety.

We saw this, for example, in the presidency of Barack Obama. As Election Day 2020 rapidly comes upon us, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that many perceptions of his legacy are framed by blatantly racist tropes about the “dangerous” Black man. So much did President Obama maintain a veneer of calm in the face of outrageous white supremacist reactions and resistance that comedian Keegan-Michael Key became famous in part because of his regular sketch based on being Obama’s “anger translator.”

We know the statistics. No group has been as devastatingly affected as Black men by what Michelle Alexander has aptly labeled the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration. The American Civil Liberties Union reminds us that the harsh outcome of unchecked systemic racism means “one out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.” It is hard to overstate the impact of what are now over two generations of mass incarceration on all Black men, our families, and our communities—and for our Black sons and daughters growing up today. These structural conditions affect even the two-thirds majority of Black men who avoid the prison gauntlet. It affects even those of us who become leaders of national nonprofits.

Bottom line: our visions and aspirations are still limited in scope by what white people and white-dominated institutions deem comfortable. Our actions are frequently called into question by an unspoken white-centered code of conduct widely embraced as acceptable professional behavior standards. Negative inferences are often made about us, much akin to a whisper campaign, suggesting we are less competent, somehow inadequate, or lacking skills in relation to others. Those who wield that power over Black men are numerous and typically never confront us directly with their unsupported allegations.

As Black male nonprofit leaders, we are forced to maintain a continually defensive posture due to the heightened level of scrutiny surrounding our leadership decisions, subject matter expertise, and accomplishments. For us, racism often takes the form of continuous questions and polite requests, while always compelling us to act only as dictated by white-centered power structures. When will our excellence, leadership and legacies be fully recognized and celebrated by all, with no exceptions?

The numbers of brilliant and living Black men in America are declining at an increasing pace. Most recently, our losses have included historic civil rights movement giants, such as Congressman John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Rev. Joseph Lowery. Their inspirational legacy is active and undeniably engaged today in thousands of nonviolent Black Lives Matter protesters filling our streets.

We have also lost staggering numbers of Black brothers this year to the literal “death by lethal racism” of the coronavirus. Those of us who are inclined to search for data specifying the actual number of Black men who have succumbed to COVID-19 are disappointed, but not completely surprised, to find it largely missing. Widely published data confirm men are consistently dying of the coronavirus at higher rates than women, and Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at significantly higher rates than any other racial group. Why, then, is no evidence or report widely available to validate the likely tragic specific outcome that American Black men are dying of the coronavirus at the highest rates? Is it perhaps further anecdotal evidence of a profound lack of public concern and investment in curbing the existential threat to Black men posed by the very nature of our white-dominant society?

Black American men have been sacrificed at disproportionate rates before in this nation—during our enslavement, and in the subsequent Jim Crow era. For example, in 1932, 600 of us were the uncooperative subjects of well-documented authorized medical experimentation taking place over 40 years during the Tuskegee Experiment.

Recent DNA evidence concludes that in the violent trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved African people, Black men represented over 60 percent of the 10.7 million people forcibly transported to the Americas. Modern genetics also supports the conclusion that enslavement most often resulted in higher rates of death for Black men. Even our common prevailing early experience as American children includes a sudden self-awareness of specific Black-male focused discrimination, typically emerging during the tender young ages of 13–17.

Studies confirm that we Black men who are considered successful are at increased risk of discrimination and depression, even as the reverse is true for whites and Black women. The intersection of race and gender results in high-achieving Black men being more prone to suffer, largely in silence, from racial persecution, leading to mental and physical health problems. Black men with the highest educational credentials had increased depressive symptoms, based on a 2016 study of 1,200 people over a period of 25 years. As Black men, we also endure false narratives of intellectual inferiority and unprovoked aggression, a constant diminishing of our accomplishments, subtle obstructions of our every path to leadership success—all to support the misguided and flawed mythology of white superiority and perfection.

Today’s multiple existential threats, disproportionately affecting the physical and mental health of Black men, are evidently still not considered important enough to drive the caring human response narrative and actions needed to protect our well-being. We have no social media hashtag-driven courageous movement highlighting our unique struggles as Black men. In contrast, we are rigidly conditioned, often facilitated by the innocent actions of our own families and peers, to always avoid displaying any sign of emotional or physical weakness and distress.

The essential question remains: What must ideally be done in America to unconditionally support the leadership and success of Black men? Outcomes for us all would clearly be different if philanthropy intentionally reversed the process and pattern of their interactions with nonprofits led by Black men. Rather than attempting to access and evaluate our ideas along with those of others in competitive open calls for proposals with predetermined issue areas, foundations and donors could replicate the model of the Black Resilience in Colorado Fund, proactively creating and targeting a pool of funding intended only for Black-led organizations.

The recent announcement of nonprofit funding awards totaling $1.7 billion by philanthropist Mackenzie Scott is also an encouraging sign of donor progress toward this approach. Her innovative proactive giving benefitted 116 preselected organizations working across several issues. Her press release emphasized that of $586.7 million in grants made to racial justice organizations, 91 percent were made to leaders of color, and that of $133 million in gender equity grants that 83 percent were made to women leaders. However, again, less attention was paid to the grants she made to 21 organizations led or co-led by Black male CEOs.

This critical moment of racial reckoning requires us to oppose the clear and specifically focused racism limiting the progress of Black leaders within the nonprofit sector. We are called now to address the proven bias of the various power dynamics working against us.

Marcus Walton, President and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, speaks to our essential Black male truth in his June blog post, “Hope is Not a Strategy for Change.” Walton reminds us of the need to reframe narratives, identify root causes, break down data into forms where we can act to change outcomes, and change rules and norms that are holding us back. Ultimately, we need to claim our own power and create a better world with our own two hands.

Based on his example, I encourage my fellow Black nonprofit CEO brothers to hold ourselves accountable by sharing our experiences, our unique struggles, and our ideas for change within the nonprofit industry. In this series over the next three weeks, you will hear from Walton and others as they share some of the distinctive perspectives and needs of Black male nonprofit leaders for truth and reconciliation.

Of course, this series is but a beginning.

As Black male leaders, we must look reflectively at ourselves, but it is equally vital for whites and others in the nonprofit sector to also be reflective and consider their own roles and actions within this system.

In short, it is incumbent on all of us in this sector to raise and unite our collective voices. Only by disrupting existing negative patterns and replacing them with positive ones can we hope to achieve the anti-racist systems change so desperately needed to balance the scales of justice for ourselves and all Black men in America.