As American As Apple Pie: An Essay about Structural Racism Written in cooperation with Camelback Ventures. By James Evans, CEO and Creative Director of C.A.R.E
Some time ago we endeavored to bake a large and fantastic Pie. The likes of which the world had never seen. It was an incredible undertaking requiring world-class baking experts and a fair share of kitchen laborers, as no one wanted the esteemed pâtissiers getting their precious hands dirty. Given the work’s enormity, we decided the kitchen help should be forever chained to their cures. And so they were.
Begrudgingly we agreed that the loathsome laborers must be fed.
But all we had at the time was the beautiful pie for which they slaved-over, and we could not and would not freely share the best of what we possessed with them. So, we partially poisoned the pie filling, carefully demarking in the crust what part of the pie the workers could eat, separating their portions from ours.
It was a brilliant plan. Arsenic in the proper dose would not kill the laborers, but it would make them too weak to complain, revolt, or escape.
So, the pie was placed in the oven and baked to golden perfection, just as the pâtissiers had prescribed. Nothing had ever been pulled from an oven that looked as good as an American Apple Pie.
We ate from the pie, all of us. Many laborers fell profoundly ill, and many died. Over time, we freed all from their slave labor, but unfortunately not before chronic illness spread among the former slaves and we the slavers.
One cannot partially poison a pie.
As we move from the analogous into a harsher reality, we must accept that the whole of America has been tainted by racism. Religious Organizations, Educational Institutions, the Justice System, Non for Profits, and Philanthropic Funders have all consumed and suffer from the same poisonous pie.
But here, let’s focus on Non for Profits and their Philanthropic funders.
Why? Because in the space of Anti-Racist work, those seeking to do good can do the most significant harm.
In doing Anti-Racist work, we must first accept that many “Well-meaning” organizations are centered on supremacist and colonial dogma. Yes, this includes Non for Profits, Philanthropic Foundations, Educational Institutions, and Individuals who earnestly seek better outcomes for People of Color.
Think for a moment about who typically sits on Non for Profits Board of Directors? Who are their Executive Directors of choice? Through what lens are Non for Profits grant applications written?
Fortunately, a good portion of our country has awakened to a new day. There is, at last, a burgeoning awareness of the harm done to People of Color and a renewed interest in resolving inequalities. Unfortunately, even the most well-meaning amongst us often see only the damage done to People of Color and fail to see the poison damage within our institutions. And because many organizations don’t see the full depth of injury, too many continue to invest in DEI as though only a small portion of the whole requires repair.
For decades Americans have lived under the false pretense that Slavery ended under the humble and honorable hands of Abraham Lincoln. Physical chains where broken in 1865, but certainly not by Lincoln alone. African Americans fought bloody battles for their own freedom alongside ardent Abolitionists. And what did freedom look like post slavery? For most it looked and felt just as slavery once had.
Few former slaves benefited for Sherman’s Forty Acres and a Mule field order. Moreover, the order was revoked, and after Lincoln’s assassination federal troops were pulled back from the deep south leaving former slaves to fend for themselves among powerful southern whites hellbent on retaining their power.
The slave and her entire family have been poisoned. Now free, she and her kind have been set out on the road without food, without savings, without protection from the law, and without the literacy required to read a map, let alone a newspaper. With children in hand, she did what many “freed” slaves did; she returned to her master’s tortuous kitchen as a sharecropper.
Slavery demands “Thingification”, the dehumanizing of those you abuse in spite of your conscience and your Constitution. Rather than providing the former slave an antidote in the form of Justice, the entire system of Justice was turned against them. Making the decades after the Civil War as horrendous and dangerous for African Americans as the decades prior. The Ku Klux Klan [KKK] was formed and Jim Crow laws invented after slaves were freed. The moment American Slaves walked off the plantation they were forced into poverty and intentionally associated with criminality. The mighty arm of Segregation was designed to keep the former laborers from claiming their share of the untainted pie.
But one cannot partially poison a pie.
Far too much of American History goes untaught, leaving many blind to the struggles that lead to the Civil Rights Movement, its success and the country’s failure to see beyond them toward the greater good.
Like the Civil Rights Movement preceding it, Black Lives Matter is centralized primarily on the preservation of life. The brutal beatings and murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Carol Denise McNair, Rodney King, John Louis, George Floyd, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor and many others have fed “Right to Life” movements, even among well-meaning White Americans. After all, the arsenic was only intended to weaken, not maim or kill.
The acquisition of Basic Civil Rights and the Right to Life does not equate to Justice, but Diversity, Equity and Inclusion have the potential for realized Reparations. And that reality makes DEI dangerous and the reason so few in power invest deeply into DEI, which include those in the “Do Gooder” space.
“A recent BoardSource report showed that nonprofit boards are no more racially and ethnically diverse than they were two decades ago and that “current recruitment priorities indicate this is unlikely to change.” Moreover, BoardSource found that 27 percent of the nonprofit boards surveyed were 100 percent white. This at a time when only 61.3 percent of Americans are white, about 84 percent of nonprofit board members are in that demographic group, along with 90 percent of nonprofit board chairs.” Source: Nonprofit Quarterly.
To add further clarity to the challenge we face, BoardSource also reports organizations led by people of color are awarded fewer grant dollars and are trusted less to make decisions about how to spend those funds than groups lead by white leaders:
“Among groups focused on improving life outcomes of black men, revenue at organizations with black leaders was 45 percent lower than at groups led by whites. The authors found that white-led groups had budgets that were 24 percent larger than those led by people of color.” Source: Bridgespan
“When it comes to the holy grail of financial support—unrestricted funding—the picture is even bleaker. The unrestricted net assets of the black-led organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts. The stark disparity in unrestricted assets is particularly startling, as such funding often represents a proxy for trust.” Source: SSIR
As an advocate for Social Justice, specifically focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I often find myself explaining that DEI is not just for marginalized groups forced to consume the most concentrated doses of arsenic. While the urgency to focus on Right to Life issues are warranted, that fight often distracts from the need for a new and Just pie, not to solely for People of Color but reform and healing for the entire nation. After all, the vast majority of those who benefit from socially responsible programs like SNAP and Obama Care are poor and under-severed White Americans. Yet those likely to benefit from those programs will often vote against themselves in an effort to deprive African American a slice of “free” pie.
DEI must include reimagining the whole. Re-thinking the work demands reframing the purpose and strategies around DEI, including the work’s budgets. Currently, programs and initiatives are heavily weighted on adding those systematically left behind, looked over, and marginalized. Acknowledging the need for more diversity is crucial, but the Inclusion portion of the work is often the only portion that receives funding. Nevertheless, Equity is the keystone, as it ensures those we included have a real chance to succeed.
Creating Systemic Equity is the counterbalance to Systemic Racism, but it requires a retooling of the whole system, investment in people and communities, and new diverse leadership. Equity requires humbleness and prioritized spending beyond many well-meaning organizations working within the realm of Anti-Racism. Merely turning the pie so that People of Color can now enjoy the portions White Americans have been accustomed to fails to recognize that the entire pie has been poisoned.
My organization, Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity [CARE], is focused on Inclusion and Equity. We have intentionally elevated the voices of color within the Animal Welfare community while simultaneously funding and supporting new BiPoc organizations under a “Proximate Leader” model best described in Effective Change Requires Proximate Leaders By Angela Jackson, John Kania & Tulaine Montgomery Oct. 2, 2020. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/effective_change_requires_proximate_leaders
Rather than solely demanding that the dominant white culture change to accommodate the voices of BiPoc Americans, CARE is building a completely new system designed around our faith in universal genius. In other words, CARE believes brown and black community leaders have the lived experience and expertise to solve their own community challenges – all that they require is for their organizations and programs to be funded in an equitable way. Proximate Leader T. Morgan Dixon sums up the vision this way, “The current system isn’t working for us, so we’re building one that is.”
Non for Profits and Philanthropic organizations engaging in Anti-Racism must recognize that bringing more diverse voices to the table is shortsighted without profoundly investing in new, more equitable tables. And these new tables should be made by those disenfranchised for those disenfranchised, because this is what Equity demands.