MLK, nonprofit and philanthropy, and new ways white moderation shows up

Written by Vu Le

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and this year it will probably be even more surreal than usual. Normally, we see the plethora of politicians and people who would have opposed everything MLK stood for, now quoting and praising him. This year, be on the lookout for MLK quotes from people and organizations who have remained silent on Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, including the massacre of over 10,000 Palestinian children. If this is you, lean on MLK’s courage and use this day to break your silence.

The rest of us, however, are also not off the hook. I see the same quotes being used, the ones that are positive and hopeful, that won’t cause any offense. Those words are important, but don’t forget all the other things Dr. King said that we often conveniently ignore, including “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism”

And “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?”

The quote I often think about is the one on white moderation. He warned that the biggest threats to justice are not the overt racists who wear hood and burn crosses, but the “white moderate,” the seemingly nice people who profess to have the same goals, but who always prioritize civility, respectability, and a type of “peace” that doesn’t call for justice.

Our sector—nonprofit and philanthropy—needs to constantly reflect on this concept of white moderation because we are arguably the single most salient embodiment of it. Many of us still equivocate around issues like police violence. Our fundraising and philanthropic practices allow for the conscience-laundering of systemic injustice, including horrendous wealth hoarding. Many funders and nonprofit leaders actively work against addressing the root causes of inequity, like the foundations prohibiting their grantees from engaging in advocacy work. And so on. Here are 21 signs you and your org may be the white moderate.

However, it’s been over 60 years since Dr. King wrote those words about white moderates in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Things evolve, including how white moderation manifests. Sure, many things that MLK listed as examples of white moderation—calling for unity and civility, prioritizing pragmatism, asking people to wait until the “right time,” etc.—are still very much present.

But I’ve been seeing other ways white moderation is showing up in our sector and our world. I’m going to reflect on three of those ways below (while also working on . Please keep in mind that these concepts are not in themselves bad; most or all are good. It’s only when they are used as excuses to not take other actions that would advance justice, or they are weaponized against those who are taking those actions, that they become a tool of white moderation.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.