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Wit and Wisdom — Foundations and the Fallacy of Post-Racial America: African American Men and Civic Engagement

Post-racial America?! A week before the 2013 @EPIPNational Conference in Chicago, Dr. Emmett Carson was the Clinton Scholar in Residence at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas. During that week, he examined the implications of philanthropy’s perceptions of a ‘post-racial America’, and further posits reflections on the civic engagement of African American males. As usual, Dr. Carson’s voice challenges colleagues to examine our roles and commitment to authentic social change. Below is an excerpt Dr. Carson’s essay, Foundations and the Fallacy of Post-Racial America: African American Men and Civic Engagement. Please read it and share. We are interested in your thoughts. 


Of all the questions of discrimination and prejudice that still exist in our society, the most perplexing one is the oldest, and in some ways today, the newest:  the problem of race.  Can we fulfill the promise of America by embracing all our citizens of all races.…  In short, can we become one America in the 21st century?

With these words, former President Bill Clinton announced his intention to lead the American people in “a great and unprecedented conversation about race.” His hope was to create One America in which every citizen, regardless of race, recognizes their shared dreams and has access to equal opportunity.  Shared dreams and equal opportunity are the avenues through which citizens become engaged in the civic life of their communities, allowing strangers to become neighbors, strengthening the social fabric of America’s civil society.  Without question, the most visible example of the nation’s progress on race relations is the two-term election of President Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s election did not usher in a new dialogue on race relations as many hoped.  Paradoxically, it reinforced the false ideas that racial equality in America has been achieved and a dialogue on race relations is unnecessary.  In this post-racial America it is presumed that an individual’s success is largely based on one’s own talents, aspirations and fate, and that a person’s race or ethnicity is largely irrelevant in determining his or her future socio-economic success.  Some proponents of this view go even further, suggesting that efforts to address disparities by focusing on a specific race amounts to reverse discrimination by giving a particular group an unfair advantage.

The widespread acceptance of a post-racial society is at odds with the divisive national debates that ensued along racial lines following the tragic shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, among others.  These incidents show how questions of race, especially when it involves African American men, continue to divide America.  The belief in a post-racial society has had several unfortunate consequences, including preventing foundations from acting to research and document racial disparities, determine their cause, encourage dialogue around the findings and support solutions.

If we are living in a post-racial society, there is no better group to examine than African American men and boys–who without question have been subjected to harsh treatment throughout American history–to determine the veracity of the claim of a post-racial society.  In 2010, foundations contributed $29 million to programs exclusively focused on African American men and boys, a modest increase over previous years.[ii]  While this amount may appear significant, it is actually less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $45.7 billion awarded by America’s 76,000 grantmaking institutions in 2010.[iii] Such a small amount is only justified if one believes that African American men and boys face no systemic issues of racial discrimination or that their dismal socio-economic status has not reached a level of dysfunction that affects the larger society.

This essay begins with a short primer on African American history.  Culture and history matter.  They provide the necessary context for understanding the how and why of where groups find themselves.  The next three sections provide rationales for why foundations should engage in specific programs aimed at supporting African American males:  the mythology of a post-racial society, saving an endangered species and ensuring global competitiveness.  While this essay focuses on African American males, it is important to note that these positions can form the philosophical basis for supporting programs directed to assist any segment of Americans; for example, Native Americans and whites in Appalachia and women.

Transcript of Remarks by President Clinton at University of California at San Diego Commencement, June 14, 1997.

[ii] Where Do We Go From Here?:  Philanthropic Support for Black Men and Boys, Open Society Foundations and Foundation Center, October 2012, p. 7.

[iii] Steven Lawrence and Reina Makai, “Foundation Growth and Giving Estimates,” Foundation Center, 2011, http://founda.tioncenterorg/gainknowledge/research/pdf/fgge11.pdf

Wit and  Wisdom is a blogging collaboration between EPIP and JAG. Featuring a monthly entry from individuals within our networks, it highlights thought leadership about philanthropy, racial/social equity, and multigenerational change. Its lightening-hot interviews, essays, and case studies aim to provoke insightful discussion.  We hope you will engage!


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