Across the nonprofit ecosystem, the imperative to acknowledge and right the deep wrongs of our own institutional histories is prompting more dialogue and action. Reparations for the descendants of enslaved persons are again gaining attention, especially after the racial unrest that erupted in 2020. The conversation is not new; it’s been happening since the Civil War. However, it is experiencing a resurgence that is likely to affect communities, governments, and our colleagues in philanthropy.

However, historically, taxpayers have been resistant to foot the bill for direct-payment reparations. Estimates put the total cost for such a plan at $13 trillion, with an estimated 40 million Americans able to claim descendancy from enslaved persons. Even during a year of historic public support for racial equity movements, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in June 2020 showed only 20% of Americans in favor of cash reparations.

The legacies of the slave economy — segregation, systemic and cultural racism, mass incarceration — are largely responsible for the historically uneven distribution of wealth in the U.S. As of 2016, an average Black family had a net worth $800,000 less than the average white family. Black Americans are also less likely to own a home than other racial and ethnic groups, and the Black poverty rate is double the white rate.. The legacy of the well-documented practice of red-lining is very apparent in the segregated neighborhoods and wealth divides we see today.

Ryan Schlegel, director of research at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), has argued that since slavery played a major role “in the economic development of the country, it really ought to be a priority for every foundation to think critically about what their responsibility might be to begin to make amends for the crime that generated so much of our shared wealth”.

Though a growing number of foundations practice social justice philanthropy — or have adopted other strategies like trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking, aimed at elevating community voices and strategies in funding decisions — most individual and institutional philanthropists are simply not in the business of confronting the economic inequality that undergirds their power.

Read the full article about reparitions and philanthropy by Juan Olivarez and Leslie Starsoneck at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy.