JULY 2023

I believe it is up to all of us who disagree with recent Supreme Court opinions and legislative discriminatory laws to be clear-eyed about the desired goal of equitable economic justice. The need to invest and advocate for the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve systemic and community changes is more urgent. It is our calling in this decade to turn the pain imposed into power, and the anguish felt over these decisions into resolve.

AFN approaches change by examining both the root causes and the resulting systemic opportunities or obstacles to achieve greater economic justice. We understand decisions made by politicians and powerful stakeholders working to preserve the status quo (described effectively in Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste), especially after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The actions taken were to systematically disinvest in the schools, parks, and communities that primarily served and housed students of color.

Universal public education was a foundational strength of the U.S. in the 20th century. It helped to undergird the growth of a strong middle class and upward economic ability. Yet, once the arc of justice required systems to stop overt discrimination, in far too many communities, the actions taken were also to increase disinvestment in education and community assets through increased reliance on local (formerly redlined) property tax values and less general state or city funding. Instead of a focus on collecting the taxes due from the rich and corporations to target funds to develop our children and youth and realize their full economic potential, there was the head-in-the-sand, self-satisfied attitude that both embraced trickle-down “economics” and prevented equitable public funding. Indeed, California’s Reparations Commission, through its economists, determined that the disinvestment and intentional discrimination in housing, health, over-policing, education segregation, unjust property taking, and incarceration cost the average Black 71 year old approximately $1.2 million over their lifetime.

Where quality preschool is available and affordable, and where a robust public education is available, is mostly not in the urban and suburban areas where we educate students of color. The systemic disinvestments ensure the quality of education, the extracurricular options, the music and art programs, the availability of AP courses, and a host of other advantages are not as available to all students. Many states additionally disinvested in public funding of community colleges, teaching colleges, and public universities compared to the levels in the 1960s.

And now, states are passing laws that discourage teaching history that considers race or skin color or advancing equity. Over 40% of the 2,000 plus “banned books” pulled from school or library shelves in the past year featured people of color prominently. The racialized power preference being exerted is plain.

The Supreme Court viewed this unequal, often white-supremacist history and contemporary landscape, ignored it, and decided that race-neutral preservation of economic privilege and legacy admissions (overwhelmingly for white families) was all the Constitution required. I believe that over time this decision and the equally unsound decisions on the executive authority to cancel student loans and to create a right to refuse equal treatment to LGBT persons on a religious basis (in apparent violation of the framers’ intent) will be overturned.

How does philanthropy act to produce effects, opportunities, and results that reimagine that achieve racial, economic justice and equity? Philanthropy can: 

  • Frame the discussion and the narrative. Solutions in education and community assets require targeted systemic investments and new structures to achieve equity.
  • Create narrative change supporting the economic need for skilled workers and employers who can benefit from affordable, debt-free public post-secondary education. 
  • Deliver greater sustained investment, private and public, to many HBCUs. 
  • Flow sustained levels of capital as investments to those harmed by racialized disinvestment and the legacy of laws and legal actions that created the racial wealth gaps. 
  • Actively support efforts to expand an investment in our future, Baby Bonds. 
  • Support policies to cancel student loans (income based or after ten years).  
  • Elevate environmental justice investments in communities to repair policies that created heat zones or to support households to affordably achieve the necessary responses to climate change.
  • Give honest consideration to reparations. At its core, reparations are a payment of damages for the harm the government and private sanctioned action caused. It is not about blame – but a recognition that in our American justice system, money damages is how we most often right wrongs. Wrongs that should not be denied if we are to maximize the opportunity for every child. 

I know I was helped decades ago by affirmative action, and I also know it was not enough to level the playing field because of systemic decisions made by those in power. Philanthropy will help move the arc of justice by focusing on power-building, narrative change, reparative investments, intentional targeted capital, and asset building systemic interventions. Our shared goal is to achieve true justice and equitable opportunities for everyone. Join AFN to explore how we do this better, test new strategies, and continue to learn about what works and where to invest intentionally to achieve equitable economic justice in our lifetimes. With our collective efforts, we can make a lasting and fairer future for all.