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Bricks Without Straw: Black America, The West Louisville Forum & the Need to Shift the Giving Paradigm

There’s a special kind of torment that you sometimes see actively rupturing among some of the more socially-responsible or at least ‘right-inclined’ members of the white community once the sheer profoundness of black disadvantage really starts to sink in. Or maybe it’s not just the fact of its sheer profoundness. But rather it’s the sort of ‘Deep Impact’ moment of becoming aware of all the ways in which every dimension of white life is predicated on that disadvantage. And that to inhabit whiteness as an American without participating in a type of politics that points a way out of that societal and economic parasitism is to remain basically complicit in its production. It’s like witnessing in real time all of those little switch valves that a white psyche possesses in order to divert the flow of difficult and awful truths all suddenly beginning to not open anymore.

So it’s not surprising when the presentations from Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore—two individuals whose unsparing analysis of race in America can reliably excite some of that latent white hysteria surrounding what’s really lurking beneath the floorboards of that house of stability they’ve come to know and love and understand as white life—have one white audience member during the Q&A portion of today’s forum in St. Stephen Church desperate for concrete answers as to what meaningful actions she (and other whites) can take in order to help effect justice for black people.

There’s an almost pleading quality in the woman’s voice when she asks her question:

‘Um, as a white person who’s trying to grasp the difference—the supremacy…the culture—that has undergirded everything in such a negative way still today, this is overwhelming for me to grasp what you all are saying about ‘redlining philanthropy.’ I’ve not heard this before. Um, the story has to be told more, obviously. But, um, aside from—and I’m not asking…I’m conflicted in saying…because I don’t want to put this on black people to come up with what should white people do, there’s already plenty—but as white people who are intending to do right things, aside from giving to historically black colleges, regardless of the tax or not tax benefit, what can we be doing? The connections, the sharing, the social exchanges…I’m hearing that…I’m hearing a lot. But I don’t know… What do you value the most that we can be doing?’

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We now—in terms of philanthropic giving and charitable giving—have a red line drawn around black institutions across this nation — Antonio Moore

Philanthropic redlining could, in a way, be described as the fulfillment of the ostensibly political act—hope—that was printed on the ’08 Obama campaign posters. Of course hope is obviously not a political act. It is simply—when you tally up the ledger of a political agenda like Obama’s that was so clearly partial to the rich—the remaining public balance. As Antonio Moore points out during his presentation at the forum, Obama—while undoing black wealth—helped usher in an unprecedented number of millionaires during his time in office. Moore’s analysis is worth quoting in full:

‘Since 2015, as a result of policy, new white wealth has calcified. Let me explain: everybody talks about Obama and the destruction of black wealth, but very rarely do we talk about the creation of white wealth. It was a parlor trick. By not giving the [bailout] money from the Great Recession to the home owners, it deeply affected black wealth because black people have property as their main asset. Very rarely do they have stocks, the small amount of black people that do have wealth. So you’ve cratered black wealth. Well, at the same time [Obama] does quantitative easing, leading to a boost in the stock market and creating a new class of white wealth who will be the givers in this nation due to a tax policy that benefits them. So in 2015, America has 4.5 million millionaires. By 2018, America has 17.5 million millionaires, nearly all white or foreign. There are no ADOS saviors for St. Stephen Church and Simmons College.’

In other words, philanthropic redlining is the predictable outcome of the federal government’s failure to remunerate American Descendants of Slaves following centuries of that group’s bondage and the several decades of discriminatory policies that principally functioned to keep wealth out of the black community, while at the very same time, consolidating it in white America. For black institutions, which across the country languish in the shadow of a policy like redlining, the wealth that was created and then hoarded within white America is now a primary funding source upon which those institutions must rely to actually be able to move forward in fulfilling their historic mission of black uplift. That private wealth—the potential tax dollars which our government prefers to abstain from democratizing and redistributing in the public interest—belongs to a donor class to which black America in its nearly-perennial condition of forced dependency must now beseech in hopes that those few individuals might in kind look sympathetically and charitably upon their specific plight.

But for Yvette Carnell, the homogenous networks of social connections of the ultra-rich only portend further enervation of these black institutions, since those networks naturally exclude American Descendants of Slaves. Philanthropic giving, then, is merely a reflection of well-established structures of society—white wealth flowing into white institutions—when what black America urgently needs, according to Carnell, is a serious refutation of that model.

‘We as citizens are supposed to define our priorities as a country,’ she defiantly says to the audience gathered at St. Stephen Church. ‘A billionaire should not have the right to tell us—descendants of slaves—that you don’t get your justice. That your unpaid time, your unpaid labor, the oppression of over four-hundred years does not get to be paid because I don’t think I have enough money and I don’t care and I don’t desire to fund it.’

As a substitute, Carnell says, American Descendants of Slaves must advocate for greater government involvement in redistributing tax dollars, which is to say, redistributing power. ‘You need [government] to be big, you need it to be robust and you need it to work on our behalf,’ she says, stressing that black America cannot realistically rely on the resources of the ultra-rich when the quid pro quo nature of social and economic exchange in supercapitalist America de facto writes Descendants of Slaves out of the equation.


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There’s this video clip that Antonio Moore plays before he begins his presentation that offers the audience in the St. Stephen sanctuary a real stark example of what exactly this exchange that Yvette Carnell refers to looks like. In the video, Madeline Levin recounts her experience of speaking with parents whose children aspire to attend the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities: ‘What [the parents] do,’ she says, ‘is instead of attaching a check for one hundred and seventy-five dollars with your child’s application, you attach a check for one million and seventy-five and you just staple it on.’

This practice of buying access accords with what Moore often refers to as ‘the rise of legacy,’ a way of looking at outcomes in a person’s life less as a result of individual effort, and rather as a fundamental expression of whose ancestors were either beneficiaries or victims during a now bygone era of wealth-building in the United States. During his presentation, Moore highlights how this rise of legacy sharply reveals itself in race-specific ways, noting the extremely disproportionate number of students that attend HBCUs on Pell Grants as compared to the slim number of Pell Grant recipients found at the nation’s premiere colleges and universities. ‘8 HBCUs have over 90 per cent of their students receiving Pell Grants,’ he says, ‘Harvard is 11 per cent.’ And for Moore, the money that feeds into that latter institution—and which then circulates throughout other white-dominant spaces—is destined to remain as segregated as the nation itself: ‘What happens under philanthropic redlining is that the 90 per cent of Harvard that doesn’t receive Pell grants just gives to each other,’ he says. ‘They give to each other for all kinds of endeavors, but none of those endeavors deal with correcting why black people have to receive Pell Grants.’

As for why that is, it seems reasonable to view it as less a pure expression of anti-black attitudes, and more as simply (though no less nefariously) behavior patterned after what our deeply anti-black institutions have been structured to promote and reward. ‘They’re exchanging social capital,’ Carnell says, ‘They’re exchanging something they need at that tier with something somebody else needs at that tier, and [American Descendants of Slaves] come there with nothing.’

In light of this, what is required, then—and what has always been at the core of the Breaking Brown project—is a regimented and disciplined approach of that group around a bold, justice-driven agenda that recognizes and responds to the dramatically weak institutional capacity in the black community as a major obstacle to uplift and a deliberate creation of federal policy. Carnell looks out into the pews before her and counsels: ‘Your life, and what is happening to Simmons College…what you are seeing is a starving out. We are being starved out. And we are not any help to ourselves in terms of how we’re being starved out because we believe that societies are structured by personal agency rather than structures and institutions.’

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“There has only been one college to make a comeback of the HBCUs. Only one in history. One that went down and came back. It’s Simmons. And let me say this: the reason why it came back was not because of black folk money.” — Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby

To return to the white woman in the audience who when we last left her was in a state of seemingly painful suspense to learn what she can possibly do, provided all of this extremely disheartening information about how white life is essentially organized around the accrued advantages of multigenerational anti-black policies and—later—‘race-neutral’ policies that nonetheless came so preloaded with the former’s economic disadvantages that they managed do the work of ensuring that the black community would be efficiently and systematically excluded anyway.

Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby responds to her by saying, ‘Louisville is the model.’

Dr. Cosby is the senior pastor at St. Stephen Church, who—when he’s preaching about justice to a congregation—routinely invokes the trope of
‘courageous ears;’ that is, a willingness of a person to surrender preconception, shed bias, and to begin from the premise that his or her most basic assumptions about American society, and maybe even about themselves, are potentially unreliable guideposts in governing their involvement in working toward the improvement of U.S. race relations. It means recognizing how perhaps our sensibilities about those race relations have long been powerfully shaped by a status quo-affirming barrage of propaganda, and how even in our most well-intentioned endeavors the tendency is to bring with us colonial attitudes that presuppose the very power relations that have historically conditioned the obscene level of inequality we ostensibly oppose.

In Louisville, those individuals and organizations who were moved to invest in the city’s black-led institutions, and who gave them new life, did so by having courageous ears; by hearing and respecting that essential modifier: black-led.

‘Do you know how Simmons got kicked off?’ Dr. Cosby asks the audience. ‘I went to a white man named David Jones Sr., and said, “Mr. Jones, I know nothing about higher education. I’m a pastor. Simmons is about to close. It has no money. It has no accreditation. But it’s a historic institution that can become Louisville’s HBCU if somebody invested in it.” And guess what he did? He gave the school in February—Black History month of February of 2005—unrestricted funds in which he said, “Here’s a check for a million dollars.” And the same thing has happened to the Gheens Foundation, who is here, and thank God for them…We have a headquarters building that was the former—check this out—the former Sons of the American Revolution because the Brown Foundation gave the school three-million dollars.’

No doubt Rev. Dr. Cosby understands that—in terms of solutions for making black people whole in this country—the coffers of private donors are necessarily ancillary to a more appropriately-scaled suite of reparative federal policies that take in tax dollars and redistribute wealth in a way that redresses how black institutions in the U.S. have generally been rendered impotent and hobbled in their purpose. Nonetheless, as a model of white cooperation, the investment of resources into Simmons College of Kentucky is instructive because it demonstrates not only what is possible with an allyship that defers to the leadership of black people, but also what the supporting role that whites ought to play in the project of black liberation looks like. The importance of this arrangement—and not just in philanthropy, but in the freedom struggle more generally—is something on which Yvette Carnell closes out the forum:

‘When I say that it’s importantfor you to be here, I want to make it clear when I say that, I’m not justsaying be somewhere where we’re talking about race or redlining. What I’mtalking about is the importance of white people being led by black people. Thisis St. Stephen. That’s Reverend Cosby. So you’re willing to learn what youshould be doing from us. And not enough do we have white people who are willingto be led by black people in these types of organizations. So if you want afirst step, this room needs to be filled up with a lot more white people.’



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