This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
By Suzanne Garment and Leslie Lenkowsky
For those of us of a certain age, the realization hits right between the eyes: This is where we came in.
It was more than 50 years ago when the last big wave of civil unrest hit this country. In its wake, the well-meaning people in U.S. foundations and nonprofits ramped up to respond to what they thought were the lessons of the upheaval.
But they may not have learned the right lessons. Half a century later, the complaints from today’s protesters are nearly identical to those we heard back then—income inequality, wealth disparity, educational gaps, divergent health outcomes, discriminatory administration of justice.
The question is obvious: Can we do it better this time? The answer is fiendishly complicated.
In 1967, as Detroit and other cities burned, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—better known as the Kerner Commission, after its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner—to investigate what was happening and recommend ways to prevent it in the future.
The report criticized failed government policies in education, housing, social services, and other areas, but principally blamed the unrest on the persistence of racism in American life. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the commission concluded, calling on “white institutions” and “white society” to change. Creating more diverse and better-trained police forces was among the report’s key recommendations.
Not everyone agreed with this diagnosis. Some scholars, such as sociologist William Julius Wilson, argued that race was of “declining significance” compared with the effects of living in low-income communities, where jobs were scarce and families fragile. Others cited the destructive effects of often well-intentioned but misguided public policies in areas such as welfare, urban development, and public housing.
Yet a third body of opinion saw a history of discrimination, going back to slavery, as the primary barrier to progress for Black Americans. Special measures such as “affirmative action” or “reparations” were needed to overcome this sorry history and provide a measure of justice for past wrongs.
At one time or another in the past 50 years, philanthropy, like public policy in general, has embraced each of these approaches to improve the prospects for Black Americans. It would be wrong, and needlessly disheartening, to overlook what they accomplished. Poverty rates went down. Educational achievement improved. Black Americans attained leadership positions in the nation’s largest companies, wealthiest foundations, most prestigious universities, city halls and state houses, and, of course, the White House.
Still, the Kerner Commission’s central point—that Black and white people in the United States inhabit largely different societies—remains distressingly accurate, extending to disparities not only in economic and social circumstances but also in the communities where they live.
Addressing policing has proved especially difficult. No one familiar with the workings of law enforcement in this country can doubt that Black Americans are treated differently than other Americans, and that more than occasionally, the results are shocking, as George Floyd’s death illustrates.
But Black Americans are also victims of crime and disorder and have supported strengthening measures to protect their communities. Moreover, in the time since the Kerner Commission report, the diversity and training of police officers have improved. Both these facts suggest that the persistent problem may reflect not so much who wears a badge but our inconsistent expectations about what police should do.
Yet, as many have noted, the current protests seemingly offer another—and perhaps more promising—opportunity to close these gaps. In the 1960s, reaction to the Kerner Commission report split along racial lines.
A majority of Blacks accepted its findings, while a majority of whites (including President Johnson) rejected them. By contrast, today’s marchers appear to come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and age groups. Most Americans, regardless of their race, condemn the treatment of George Floyd and others. At the same time, the view expressed often after the 1960s riots that looting was a form of political action, a justifiable response from people who endured oppression, so far has little support. Instead, more attention is focused on the harm caused to Black- and immigrant-owned businesses whose stores were vandalized.
Since the nation’s federal leadership looks incapable of responding constructively, foundations and nonprofits, along with businesses, need to seize the moment. Doing so effectively will require focusing on three things:
Examine the many programs undertaken in the past to find out what has worked and what has not. As Marcus Walton, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, wrote, “Hope is not a strategy for change.” Nor is protest. Nor, it must be said, is simply hiring more diverse board members and staff. All these efforts—especially, in these bleak times—can help. But there is no substitute for honest, concrete analysis of what works.
Build on the coalition of support that has developed during the protests. America’s racial divide took hundreds of years to create and won’t be erased quickly. Success will depend not just on the depth and fervor of commitment but also its breadth and staying power.
A good example is the growing numbers of foundations and nonprofits focusing on criminal justice. They range from George Soros’s Open Society Institute on the left to the Koch Foundation on the right. While their ideas about how to address the problem may differ, these organizations agree that a major overhaul is needed in the treatment of offenders — not to mention those who have done nothing wrong. This is hugely significant and should not be ignored, let alone wasted.
Guard against supporting measures that do more harm than good. An example of what not to do can be seen in the Ford Foundation’s 1967 effort to foster “community control of the schools.” After the unrest of the 1960s, a number of activists called for the creation of measures to topple American political and economic institutions and give “all power to the people.” They failed, and, in failing, they set back more promising efforts to deal with racism and poverty. Advocates of “defunding the police” should take note.
Yes, we’ve been here before. But if philanthropy and allied institutions in American society take a focused and thoughtful approach to the current moment, we may not need to come back again.
Leslie Lenkowsky is an Indiana University expert on philanthropy and public affairs and a regular contributor to these pages. He and Suzanne Garment, a visiting scholar at Indiana University, write frequently on philanthropy and public policy.