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.
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 a post-2020 election study commissioned by Third Way and other groups that “found that Republicans used ‘Defund the Police’ as a cudgel against moderate Democrats, and it played a major role in the loss of more than a dozen House seats. These losses brought us to the brink of handing an insurrectionist the Speaker’s gavel.”
“It’s also clear,” in Bennett’s view,
that this work has led to a backlash, and it’s not confined to white voters. In Minneapolis, where a Defund the Police ballot initiative failed by a wide margin in November, it performed worst in the two districts with the heaviest Black populations. You have probably seen the Pew Research from October that showed declining support across the board for less funding for police. What’s even more striking is that on the question of whether police budgets should grow or shrink, Black and Hispanic Democrats are more in favor of higher police budgets than white Democrats. None of that is the fault of the foundations, but it is vital for them to fully appreciate the political context for their funding.
Any foundation, Bennett declared,
that completely ignores the political impact of their advocacy is violating the Hippocratic oath. They can and must keep their eye on the politics of the movements they advance. And they must balance shifting the long-term narrative of causes they support with the near-term political consequences of their actions. If they don’t, they may inadvertently provide potent political fodder to the illiberal, antidemocratic Trumpian G.O.P., and thereby endanger our republic.
Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic, wrote at the end of November, “It’s an undeniable fact that Democratic Party elites, progressive activists, foundation and think-tank officials, and most opinion journalists are well to the left of the party’s rank and file.”
It’s possible, Tomasky continued, “that certain issues, or ways of talking about certain issues, will be established as litmus tests within the party that could be quite problematic for Democrats trying to run in purple districts.”
Tom Perriello, a former congressman from Virginia who is now executive director of George Soros’s Open Society-U.S., strongly defends the role of foundations. Leading up to the 2020 election, foundations invested “$700 million in voter protection that probably held democracy together,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Philanthropy saved the day.”
Critics who focus on the small set of controversial foundation programs that may be used by Republicans against Democrats, Perriello said, fail to recognize that “what is hurting Democrats is that there is not a core economic message and that allows Republicans to set these (cultural and racial) issues as a priority.”
Perriello cited same-sex marriage as an example of philanthropy initially “pushing the Overton window” farther than the electorate was willing to go, but, over time, “now it’s a winning issue.”
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, argued in a phone interview that no consideration is — or can be — given to partisan political consequences:
We make no calculations about how our grantees give credibility or not to the Democratic Party. That is of no concern to the Ford Foundation, or to me personally.
Walker continued: “We support organizations that are working toward more justice and more inclusion in America, but we have no interest in the Democratic Party’s strengths or weaknesses.”
I asked Walker about the concerns raised by Stein and Bennett. “We support issues that are about progress and inclusion and justice, but the chips fall where they fall,” Walker said.
I also asked Walker about a subject that became a central issue in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race: “critical race theory.” Walker said that the foundation supports proponents of the theory “because we believe there is value in understanding how race is a factor in our legal system,” adding that the foundation does not support the views of its grantees “100 percent of the time, but at the end of the day we believe in certain ideas of justice and fairness in our society.”
Kristen Mack, a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation, replied by email to my inquiry about foundation spending:
Our grantmaking is intended to further our programmatic strategies, each of which is based on a theory of change and clear set of goals. We are aware of the larger context in the fields in which we work and recognize that our goals may be perceived by some as leaning toward a political point of view or party. Our overarching mission, however, is to create a more just, verdant and peaceful world, which is in our view a result that would be welcomed by people across the political spectrum. We are careful not to involve ourselves in, or to make decisions based on, strengthening or opposing any political party.
The Nov. 2 Minneapolis election provided a case study of the complex politics of the defund-the-police movement. Voters in Minneapolis rejected — by 56 percent to 44 percent — an amendment to the city charter that would have dismantled the police department and replaced it with a department of public safety.
All three wards with majorities or pluralities of Black voters — wards 4, 5 and 6 — voted against the amendment by margins larger than the citywide average, at 61.2 percent to 38.8 percent. Voters in three other of the city’s 13 wards — 8, 9 and 10 — strongly supported the amendment to disband the police department, 57 percent to 43 percent. Voters in wards 8, 9 and 10 are majority or plurality white, with whites making up 54.1 percent of the population of the three wards taken together, according to data provided to The Times by Jeff Matson of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
The battle over the amendment reverberated into the races for City Council, resulting in the defeat of some incumbents who supported dismantling the police department.
Esme Murphy of Minneapolis television station WCCO interviewed several of the victors:
“Emily Koski, a mother of two in south Minneapolis, defeated Ward 11 incumbent Jeremy Schroeder, one of the strongest voices who in June of 2020 called for defunding the Minneapolis police.”
Koski told Murphy, “I felt this was the time to step up and make sure that we are actually listening to all of our community members and I feel like they felt they had been shut out.”
Similarly, in northern Minneapolis, Murphy reported: “LaTrisha Vetaw beat incumbent Phillipe Cunningham. He too was a strong supporter of replacing the police. ‘I ran because I love this community and we deserve so much better in this community than what we were getting.’”
The single largest contribution, $650,000, to the Yes 4 Minneapolis PAC, the leading group seeking approval of the charter amendment to dismantle the police department, was from Soros’s Open Society Policy Center.
Some philanthropies, in the view of Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, have inadvertently become trapped in the politics of polarization. In a phone interview, Kramer contended:
Too many — on both left and right — believe they are just one punch away from knocking the other side out. The problem, they say, is that we haven’t gone far enough, the reason we haven’t crushed the other side is because we are trimming our sails. I don’t think they see how they are widening the divide and making the fundamental problem worse.
This set of beliefs is particularly problematic at this juncture, Kramer continued, because “the public has lost faith in all our institutions. Neoliberalism is dead, but in the absence of something better, people are drifting toward ethnonationalism as a way to explain what seems wrong about the world to them.”
Instead of looking for a knockout punch, Kramer argued, “with neoliberalism dead, something will replace it. The challenge is to find something better than ethnonationalism — a way to think about the relationship of government and markets to people that is better suited to a 21st-century economy and society.”
Jonathan Chait, a columnist for New York magazine, wrote an essay in late November on the dilemmas of the Biden presidency, “Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze,” in which he argued that progressive foundations
have churned out studies and deployed activists to bring left-wing ideas into the political debate. At this they have enjoyed overwhelming success. In recent years, a host of new slogans and plans — the Green New Deal, “Defund the police,” “Abolish ICE,” and so on — have leaped from the world of nonprofit activism onto the chyrons of MSNBC and Fox News. Obviously, the conservative media have played an important role in publicizing (and often distorting) the most radical ideas from the activist left. But the right didn’t invent these edgy slogans; the left did, injecting them into the national bloodstream.
Nonprofits on the left, Chait argued, “set out to build a new Democratic majority. When the underpinnings of its theory collapsed, the movement it built simply continued onward, having persuaded itself that its ideas constituted an absolute moral imperative.”
Chait went on:
The grim irony is that, in attempting to court nonwhite voters, Democrats ended up turning them off. It was not only that they got the data wrong — they were also courting these “marginalized communities” in ways that didn’t appeal to them. For the reality is that the Democratic Party’s most moderate voters are disproportionately Latino and Black.
The defeat of Democratic candidates up and down the ticket in the 2021 Virginia election renewed the intraparty debate.
ALG Research, the major polling firm in the Joe Biden campaign, conducted, along with Third Way, a postelection study of the 2021 Virginia governor’s race, in which Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, defeated Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee. The ALG study of swing voters, which I have reported on in past columns, found, for example, that Republican highlighting of critical race theory had a subtle effect on voters:
CRT in schools is not an issue in and of itself, but it taps into these voters’ frustrations. Voters were nearly unanimous in describing the country as divided and feeling that politics is unavoidably in their faces.
While the voters ALG studied knew that critical race theory had not been formally adopted as part of Virginia’s curriculum, the report continued,
they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history, at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula. We should expect this backlash to continue, especially as it plays into another way where parents and communities feel like they are losing control over their schools in addition to the basics of even being able to decide if they’re open or not.
As my colleague Jeremy W. Peters wrote in a postelection analysis last year, critics
have argued that Democrats are trying to explain major issues — such as inflation, crime and school curriculum — with answers that satisfy the party’s progressive base but are unpersuasive and off-putting to most other voters. The clearest example is in Virginia, where the Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, lost his election after spending weeks trying to minimize and discredit his opponent’s criticisms of public school education, particularly the way that racism is talked about. Mr. McAuliffe accused the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, of campaigning on a “made-up” issue and of blowing a “racist dog whistle.”
But, Peters continued:
about a quarter of Virginia voters said that the debate over teaching critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework that has become a stand-in for a debate over what to teach about race and racism in schools, was the most important factor in their decision, and 72 percent of those voters cast ballots for Mr. Youngkin, according to a survey of more than 2,500 voters conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research organization.
For leaders of the Democratic Party, these developments pose a particularly frustrating problem because they pay an electoral price for policy proposals and rhetoric that are outside party control.
Some might argue that Republicans have the same problem in reverse, but that is not the case. The Republican Party cannot rein in its radical wing and has shown no real inclination to do so. Worse, to succeed in 2022 and 2024, it may not need to.