Philanthropy New York's Policy Corner - October 2023

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Courage to Uphold Affirmative Action: A Call for Philanthropy to Stay the Course

By: Marlon Williams, Vice President of Collaboration and Policy, Philanthropy New York

Philanthropy New York is committed to embedding equity as an essential organizing framework for how and why we do the work we do of investing in people and communities. 

Making explicit commitments was a critical first step in advancing a culture with accountability and commitment to a more equitable world. We recognize that much work is left to be done and policies like affirmative action provide the necessary frameworks for understanding the need to focus philanthropic investment on the people and communities that would create the greatest impact towards achieving equity. 

Research shows that race is the primary determinant of whether people have access to basic needs like food and housing security, a living wage, and quality education. Investing in racial equity is about acknowledging that research and America’s racialized history of to achieve the greatest social impact.” 

As an immigrant and young Black boy, my personal experience has shaped my perspective on what it can look like to shift societal structures with the goal of achieving a more equitable society. Growing up, I was overlooked and faced assumptions about my abilities from an early age. It was only when a perceptive Black teacher recognized my potential that I began to receive opportunities that I had been initially denied.  

I didn’t know it at the time but the policy that offered eighteen-year-old me the chance to not be overlooked again had a name — Affirmative Action. The policy wasn’t a guarantee of success. However, it provided me the opportunity to prove myself in a world that does not give people like me a second or even a first chance to demonstrate our talent. Affirmative action didn’t lower standards; instead, it forced existing systems to recognize that people of color can meet and exceed the standards already in place if only they were not overlooked or passed over. It highlighted a fundamental fallacy in our society's thinking: the notion that those who have successfully navigated and benefited from the system did so entirely through their own efforts, ignoring the systemic advantages that facilitated their journey.  

Affirmative Action, as a policy, was designed to acknowledge historical injustices and promote equal opportunities. It has played an instrumental role in re-shaping our society towards the vision of opportunity for all. It provides a framework for identifying and addressing inequities and gives an opportunity to those who have, for too long, been left out of the American dream. It’s important to note that affirmative action policies were never an advantage. They simply recognized the current inequities and urged action to open opportunities long denied to people of color. Promoting opportunity is a fundamental concept as part of philanthropy's social contract. Affirmative action is not a panacea for all of our societal challenges. It is, however, undeniably necessary, serving as both a practical tool and a philosophical framework.   

However imperfect, affirmative action policies represented a move forward toward justice and rebalancing power. And, they have been met with resistance from inception to today. Racial equity, at its core, entails a shift in power dynamics. It is the recognition that power does not willingly yield its position, and those who possess it often resist change. Within these shifts, the philanthropic sector is not a passive actor. Rather, the sector’s responsibility is to reinvest resources and contribute to the creation of a more fair and equitable society.  

As movements both inside and outside philanthropy call for racial equity, we are also witnessing a growing counter-movement seeking to dismantle the progress that’s been made. One such counter-movement, exemplified by the lawsuits against affirmative action, insidiously perpetuates the myth of the "model minority" being disenfranchised, using it as an argument to undermine a fundamental piece of legislation that addresses the undeniable inequality in our society. The fear I harbor as affirmative action policies face dismantling is that this will erode the courage and resolve that we have spent centuries developing to address systemic inequities.  

The dismantling of affirmative action policies attempts to make the argument that equality alone is sufficient, yet history has shown us that it is not. To truly level the playing field, we must recognize and address the persistent and historical marginalization of people of color.  

If we truly wish to be honest about wealth creation and the social contract within philanthropy, affirmative action and the aligned practices that funders hold must remain in place. This requires courage to challenge the status quo, to recognize that our society has actively disadvantaged some while disproportionately benefiting and giving advantages to others.    

To preserve the social contract that underpins philanthropy, we must protect those who are working to dismantle systemic racism, for they are the vanguards of change. We need to acknowledge that investing in racial equity is not a passing trend or a program idea. It is an intrinsic commitment woven into the very fabric of philanthropy, without which our mission to create a more just society falls apart.  

In the philanthropic sector, the recent legal challenges faced by venture capital firms dedicated to supporting Black women-owned businesses signal a concerning trend. These challenges threaten to establish a dangerous precedent, implying that even private sector efforts aimed at promoting racial equity can be legally attacked under the guise of misunderstanding equity and discrimination.   

The current climate of uncertainty surrounding affirmative action and the legal challenges faced by those striving for racial equity in the private sector should not deter us from our mission. We must continue to name and confront racism explicitly if we are to create meaningful change. Affirmative action, both as a policy and a philosophy, remains an essential tool in our pursuit of a fair and equitable society. It is the embodiment of our commitment to the social contract - the courageous recognition that we must rectify past injustices to build a better future for all.  

I am writing this as Marlon Williams, Vice President of Public Policy and trying to give you a thoughtful and articulate review of the issues. I also have to recognize that recent events such as the Supreme Court decision on Affirmative Action makes Marlon Williams, the 16-year-old in Brooklyn, NY, worried if he would ever have access to opportunity in this country.   

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