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Before you quote Dr. King, here are some things you can do to be less of the white moderate he warned about

Written by Vu Le

Today, a whole bunch of people and organizations will be quoting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because that’s what we like doing on this day. He was murdered by a white supremacist, and we now cherry pick the quotes that are most inspiring and least likely to cause tension. Few will bring up that he also said these other things, including “Something is wrong with capitalism. Maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

And “We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.”

And “I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.”

The last one hits especially hard this week, because critical efforts to protect and advance voting rights are being stymied. Yes, by Republicans, but that’s to be expected; they know they will lose the majority of federal elections if voting were fair. But more frustratingly, by two white moderate democrat senators.

The white moderate is the force Dr. King identified as the biggest barrier on the path to an equitable world: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

While this is applicable to the political world, our sector has also become one giant white moderate sector of well-meaning people who often perpetuate the very injustice we were formed to fight. Last year, I wrote “21 signs you or your organization may be the white moderate Dr. King warned about.” Since then, I have seen more signs of white moderation in nonprofit and philanthropy.

This month, for example, I learned some funders are considering working to create a common application because for decades now grant processes have been burdensome and inequitable wastes of time. Seriously? THIS is what some of you funders are worried about? While the US slips further into white theocratic fascism, you’re concerned about grant application logistics?! That’s like a life-ending meteor is heading toward earth and you’re pondering what shade of grey you’re going to repaint your accent wall. FFS, move on! Eliminate grant applications entirely! Just accept a grant we wrote for another foundation! It’s the same information! We have way more important things to work on.

We cannot keep operating with the white moderate philosophy so pervasive to our sector and society. We cannot keep being complacent, indifferent, or distracted as everything burns all around us. Here are things we must do to stop, or at least reduce, being the white moderates who prevent progress while believing they are helping make the world better:

For foundations: Philanthropy is commendable,” Dr. King wrote, “but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary. Reflect on this quote this week. But don’t reflect too long. Take actions.

  • Double, triple, or quintuple your payout rate. Or more. Stop saving the vast majority of your endowments and trickling out a tiny amount each year while democracy and people die during one of the worst health and economic crises in our lifetimes.
  • Increase funding to Black-, Indigenous-, POC-led orgs. Analyze where your grant dollars are going and ensure you are funding organizations led by communities most affected by injustice.
  • Fund organizations on the frontlines fighting for voting rights and other issues vital to a thriving democracy. It doesn’t matter if these missions don’t “align” with your priorities or whatever. You should be aligning with the priorities set by communities, not the other way around.
  • Form a 501c4 (or fund them) and start channeling money into electing more progressive candidates into office, especially progressive women of color.
  • Eliminate all grant applications, reports, and funding restrictions. “Streamlining” is not good enough anymore. Accept proposals and reports written for other funders and shorten your process to give out grants within a few days or weeks, not months.
  • If your board is mostly white, even if you’re a family foundation and your family is mostly white, change your board criteria and get people who are not white on your board.
  • Convert all your one-year grants into multiple-year (five at least) grants. Think about sunsetting and going out in blaze of glory.
  • Use your platform to call out white supremacy, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia, xenophobia, etc., and light a fire under the seats of other funders so they can take actions too.
  • Have funds ready to provide legal and other protections to organizations and leaders who speak up against injustice, as they will be targets.

For nonprofitsMake a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” This is what most of us signed up to do. And to do that effectively and move out of white moderation, here are some actions we can take (some of these below are also relevant to funders and everyone else):

  • White-led organizations, support organizations lead by marginalized communities. Introduce them to your existing donors. Amplify their work in your newsletter and social media. When it makes sense, turn down grants and advocate funding go to these orgs instead.
  • Be engaged in efforts to protect voting rights, led by organizations doing this work. Get out of the mindset that this may be “mission creep.” It should be a part of every organization’s mission to protect democracy.
  • Publicly and vocally condemn injustice. You may have to take a hit in terms of donations. But if we’re not pissing some people off, we’re probably not doing this work right.
  • Create opportunities for donors to reflect on racism, white supremacy, slavery, colonization, and the actions they can take in creating a better world. Actions that may include reparation, returning stolen land, paying higher taxes, etc.  
  • Analyze the vendors whose services you use and be intentional about supporting businesses that are owned by people of color and others from marginalized communities.
  • Assess your hiring practices. Disclose salary range on job postings. Remove requirements for formal degrees, unless it’s a specialized position. Be thoughtful about formerly incarcerated colleagues. Stop having unpaid internships; pay your interns.

For everyoneThe ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.” All of us have some level of influence on our sector, and we often use it to maintain white moderation, sometimes without meaning to. Here are some things to do, whether you are a consultant, donor, volunteer, or leader of a nonprofit or a foundation:

  • Write, call your elected officials on voting rights and other progressive efforts. March, rally, organize, mobilize.
  • White colleagues, reflect on whether your role is to remain in positions of power, or that maybe it is time for you to transition out and create space for leaders from marginalized communities to take over.
  • Colleagues of color, you are not immune to aligning with white moderation. Assess your privilege. Call out injustice, especially if it happens within your family or community.
  • Reflect on where you may be advancing white moderation. If you’re a consultant, for example, you may be steering your clients toward taking actions that are incremental and least likely to cause tension, which may not be most effective in advancing equity.
  • Analyze your own complicity and where there may be conflicts of interests. It is always easier to make a living by maintaining a civility and a “negative peace” than to stand up for what is just. Those of us with more privilege need to be willing to use it to push for change.

We are at a crossroad. Democracy, equity, justice are all on the line. In the face of so much, it is easy to remain the white moderate and quote MLK. Much harder, but much more aligned with the spirit of his teachings and activism, is to take actions that help bend the arc and bring forth the kind of world he dreamed about but did not live to see.

About the author

Vu Le