Opinion | The Law of Unintended Political Consequences Strikes Again – The New York Times – DC Initiative on Racial Equity
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Guest Essay

Credit…Levi Brown/Trunk Archive

Thomas B. Edsall

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

The killing of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that followed drove an exceptionally large increase in foundation grants and pledges to criminal and racial justice reform groups and other causes, ranging from the United Negro College Fund to the Center for Antiracist Research and from the National Museum of African American History to the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Candid — a website that connects “people who want to change the world with the resources they need to do it” — published “What does Candid’s grants data say about funding for racial equity in the United States?” by Anna Koob on July 24, 2020.

Koob wrote:

In the months since George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, we witnessed a surge in attention to longstanding anti-Black racism in the United States. Although racial inequality is hardly a new phenomenon, the public reaction to these events does feel bigger and more broad based, a trend that’s reflected in the well-documented rapid increase in related philanthropic giving to racial equity in a matter of weeks.

Before Floyd’s death, Candid found that philanthropies provided “$3.3 billion in racial equity funding” for the nine years from 2011 to 2019. Since then, Candid calculations revealed much higher totals for both 2020 and 2021: “50,887 grants valued at $12.7 billion” and “177 pledges valued at $11.6 billion.”

Among the top funders, according to Candid’s calculations, are the Ford Foundation, at $3 billion; Mackenzie Scott, at $2.9 billion; JPMorgan Chase & Co. Contributions Program, at $2.1 billion; W.K. Kellogg Foundation, $1.2 billion; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $1.1 billion; Silicon Valley Community Foundation, $1 billion; Walton Family Foundation, $689 million; The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, $438 million; and the Foundation to Promote Open Society, $350.5 million.

There are Democratic strategists who worry about unintended political consequences that could flow from this surge in philanthropic giving. Rob Stein, one of the founders of the Democracy Alliance, an organization of major donors on the left, argued in a phone interview that while most foundation spending is on programs that have widespread support, “when progressive philanthropists fund groups that promote extreme views like ‘defunding the police’ or that sanction ‘cancel culture,’ they are exacerbating intraparty conflict and stoking interparty backlash.” The danger, according to Stein, is that “some progressive politicians and funders are contributing to divisiveness within their ranks and giving fodder to the right.”

Matt Bennett, senior vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, argued in an email:

Whether inadvertent or not, some progressive foundations are funding work that is shortsighted and harmful to the long-term progress they hope to achieve. We recognize that every successful movement has people and institutions playing a variety of roles. There are folks whose job it is to push the envelope and others whose job it is to work within the system to make change. Some need to push the envelope and some need to assemble the compromise that can pass. That’s all part of the process.

However, Bennett continued, “It’s crystal clear that some ideas being pushed by activists and funded by lefty foundations go beyond that paradigm, treading into territory that is flat-out politically toxic and that undermine our collective goals.”

Bennett cited


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