Covid, Race, and the Revolution

In this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution: a radical new vision for philanthropy, worker protests across the country, and the risks for Black and Brown children if schools reopen — or if they don’t.

Issue No. 15, July 22, 2020

Philanthropy in the Time of Revolution

Those of us in philanthropy live in a land of contradiction. We sit on money accumulated through oppressive systems. We often replicate historical inequities by wielding power in elitist and exclusive ways. Over the past months and years, we have heard calls to decolonize philanthropy, spend more, and address the outsized influence of billionaires. Suddenly, many of those billionaires are talking about anti-racism and pledging to support Black organizations and movement building. 

The truth is we cannot talk, grant, or invest our way out of oppressive systems. Our country needs and demands more revolutionary changes.

     —– Fred Blackwell and Judith Bell, the San Francisco Foundation

Angela Glover Blackwell spoke with Blackwell and Bell about how philanthropy can reimagine its work to step into this moment.

Angela: Do you think we are indeed in a revolutionary moment?

Fred: I grew up in post-Civil Rights movement America. My Oakland childhood and young adult years were very much influenced by Black Power and the Black Panther party. So when I think about the word revolution, what I think about is a kind of rapid restructuring of power and influence. And that feels like the kind of moment we’re in now.   

A challenge from a philanthropic point of view, is the way that so many people who aren't necessarily connected to established nonprofits have been able to influence the discourse, and the extent to which young people have taken to the streets to demand big change. For me, that has the feeling of and level of scale around voicing displeasure that is clearly revolutionary.

There’s no doubt we’re in a revolutionary moment. The question is, will this revolutionary moment lead to the kind of transformation we need? 

AGB: What role has Covid-19 played in this moment?

FB: The direct health impacts associated with Covid, the disparities in how they have been experienced, and the devastating economic consequences that hit Black and Brown folks, set the stage for the level of outrage people experienced in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Everyone was sheltering in place and couldn’t get away from the video footage. You couldn't get up and go to work the next day: you had to pay attention! The lack of humanity portrayed created a feeling of conflict people were unable to escape.

There was also in the early days of the pandemic a surprising willingness on the part of society to make sacrifices for the most vulnerable. That was also really striking to me. It felt like the vast majority of folks were willing to make personal sacrifices, economic sacrifices for folks who had underlying health conditions, for those who were older and considered more vulnerable to the disease.

Judith: Yes, people had to think about their lives and the lives of others. And if you’re a White person, you saw the police behaving in ways that had not been witnessed firsthand before. 

AGB: Fred, is philanthropy ready for this moment? Can it be a reliable partner in a movement that is centering Blackness?

FB: I would say that philanthropy’s track record with regard to that question is no.  

Those of us who have been working from a professional point of view have been bringing data to the table, having convenings with multiple stakeholders across interest groups and stakeholder groups and sectors. We’ve been fine-tuning our PowerPoints, trying to figure out the right language, and all that stuff.

Yet in the course of four months, folks who have not been a part of those efforts — activists, organizers, and leaders who aren’t necessarily connected to a nonprofit infrastructure —  have brought this revolutionary movement into the public's consciousness in a way that professionals haven’t.  

Centering race and centering anti-Blackness is going to be important and extremely challenging for philanthropy. It means that you have to acknowledge — whether you are in the boardroom or a staff person to a philanthropic institution — that much of the wealth you are now responsible for stewarding has been generated on the backs of Black people and Black oppression. It suggests that the source of your power is not only morally in conflict with what you're doing, but in some ways delegitimizes your power.

AGB: How do you manage being a philanthropic leader in California in a movement that is centering Blackness, with the extraordinary suffering and oppression going on in the Latinx community?

FB: I'm really glad that you asked that question. The experience around Blackness and Black Power building in California, I think, is very different from the experience of the Black Power movement building in the South and in the Northeast.

In California for example, the Black Power movement was successful in centering Blackness and doing it in an inclusive way. When I think about the Black Panthers and their agenda, it was very much about Black Power, but it was also very much about transformative solidarity as well. That experience provides insight into how to center Blackness in an inclusive way that extends to the Latinx community, and to the Indigenous and South Asian communities.

Now, I'm not naive enough to say or think that we will not have tension and conflict around resource allocation, but I'm also quite confident, given what I've seen so far, that we will have the ability to get through those uncomfortable and tense conversations because we’re in a time of transformative solidarity.  

I would also add that the role of philanthropic influence comes into play very significantly, particularly for those folks in philanthropy who see this moment as critical to centering Blackness, to being more bold, and to taking more risk. We need to influence our colleagues in philanthropy and among philanthropic networks: wealthy philanthropists, corporate CEOs, elected and appointed leaders, and government. This is not a moment to question what folks on the ground are doing. We’ve got to support and follow the young people who are leading this change.

I was talking to the staff at the foundation recently about how we all have to be prepared for the pushback and the resistance that is going to come with the current moment, but not to confuse that with prematurely muting yourself or softening your agenda in anticipation of resistance.

This is the moment to push and see where the guardrails are rather than try to avoid them. It’s really important for folks who have influence and who are willing to take risk during this moment to step into that role. It is important to use your influence to bring in folks for whom these issues weren't even on their radar, taking them to a different level of enlightenment. 

AGB: How can philanthropy be programmatically useful at this time?

JB: . We recently changed the name from “program” to “community impact” at SFF. We wanted to lift up the purpose and aim of the work as opposed to thinking about it as programs that somehow will lead to change. It is about a mind shift that says “community” is fundamentally important because that’s where the impact must happen. The community will define what is needed, and then the investment in that community is what in fact gets to the change. 

AGB: Any final words?

FB: The musician Gil Scott Heron said that “the revolution will not be televised.” But it’ll be lifted up in spoken word, songs, hip hop, and social media.  Culture is essential to revolution, and philanthropy must step up to support it.

JB: Philanthropy is in the head, not in the heart or the soul. But transformative change really comes from moving people’s hearts and souls. So, philanthropy must embrace all three to support truly transformative change.

FB: Speaking as a Black person in philanthropy in the CEO role, this moment is a fabulous time to be in philanthropy. I have spent my entire career trying to mask and manage my outrage and emotions, because that outrage and emotion have very little currency. Now, in this moment, outrage and emotions are valued in a way that can be strategic. For the first time, I feel more whole than ever.

Fred Blackwell is CEO of the San Francisco Foundation. Judith Bell is the foundation’s Chief Impact Officer. Angela Glover Blackwell is Founder in Residence of PolicyLink and, yes, Fred’s mother.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

More than 143,000 people in the US have died from Covid-19, and cases are surging in 40 states — especially in some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. The Rio Grande Valley of Texas, along the  border with Mexico — where more than a third of families live in poverty and up to half of residents, including at least 100,000 undocumented people, have no health insurance — the outbreak is so severe that ambulances are lining up outside emergency rooms, waiting to drop off patients, the New York Times writes. Reporter Edgar Sandoval, who grew up in the region, returned to cover the virus, only to watch as a dozen family members, including his mother and aunt, fell ill.

Georgia, the first state to abandon shelter-in-place orders, has recorded huge increases in confirmed coronavirus cases every day for almost a month, Fox5 Atlanta reports. Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to block her from requiring people to wear masks in public to control the spread of infection.

Florida, another early and enthusiastic reopener, is reporting an average of 11,000 new coronavirus cases a day. “The residents here are terrified and I’m terrified, for the first time in my career, because there’s a lack of leadership,”  Rep. Donna Shalala told ABC’s This Week.  Her district is in Miami-Dade County, where Black and Latinx residents who have been forced to return to jobs are disproportionately getting sick and dying. “We need to close down in Florida,” she said.

National and local teachers’ unions filed a lawsuit Monday to block an order from  Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that schools reopen in August, The Hill reports. The contentious debate over returning to classrooms has taken center stage nationally. Many education leaders are trying to base their decisions on a public health standard — the average daily infection rate in the community should not exceed 5 percent. But of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, only New York City and Chicago have reached that threshold, and several are nowhere close, a New York Times analysis finds. 

Schools in low-income communities of color, starved of investment for generations, need major infrastructure improvements and other upgrades to open safely, said Richard Besser, former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Without additional resources we will see children of color, Black and Brown children, disproportionately affected if schools start to reopen,” he told CBS News.

But without additional resources they also will be disproportionately affected if classrooms do not reopen. Low-income children struggled for access to computers and Wi-Fi service and faced pressures at home that made learning difficult when schools abruptly went remote last spring, the Washington Post reports. Now, affluent families are forming “pandemic pods,”  in which their own children will receive daily instruction from teachers they hire — another sign of how the health crisis is deepening the already severe inequities in education.

Decisions about reopening schools and colleges are complicated by growing evidence that young people are not as safe from the virus as scientists initially thought, and some may be prolific transmitters of infection. In Lexington, Kentucky, youth under 18 now make up 11 percent of all coronavirus cases, and 18- to 34-year-olds make up an additional one-third, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. A new study of nearly 6,000 patients in South Korea finds that older children (ages 10-19) are more likely to spread the virus within a household than adults or younger kids.

And another new research finding should command more attention than it has gotten: Black children are almost three and a half times more likely to die within a month after surgery than their White peers, Stat reports. The study, which analyzed data from more than 172,000 children who underwent surgery between 2012 and 2017, pre-dates the pandemic but it was the first to look at racially disparate surgical outcomes in relatively healthy kids. It raises troubling questions about how Black children and teens will fare if more become seriously ill from the coronavirus and need emergency procedures.

Tens of thousands of workers nationwide walked off the job Monday, July 20, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and to protest the income inequality and systemic racism laid bare by the pandemic, the Washington Post reports. The Strike for Black Lives brought together workers from across industries, members of the largest unions, and dozens of other labor and political groups. 

Janitors are warning that they lack the time, training, and equipment to adequately clean offices, stores, and airplanes — or to protect their own health, the New York Times reports. Cleaners across the country have contracted the coronavirus. The nation’s two million janitors and custodians — a low-wage, largely immigrant, and invisible workforce — are critical for restarting the economy and reassuring higher-wage Americans it’s safe to return to work, travel, and shopping. 

Also in the Times, Daytrian Wilken writes about 14 determined Black sanitation workers in New Orleans, including his uncle, who are on strike for a $15 hourly wage and hazard pay. “Their fight, which has now gone on for more than two months, has shown me more clearly than ever before that Black people are still shackled to a cycle of generational poverty and mistreatment.”

More than six million people signed up for SNAP in the first three months of the pandemic, an historic expansion of a program the Trump administration tried to cut, the New York Times reports. The data underscore the hardship facing Americans and the importance of the safety net. Congress will begin negotiating another coronavirus relief package this week, as key provisions of earlier measures, including a $600 increase in unemployment benefits and eviction protections, are set to expire.

In California, anxiety about a coming wave of evictions is colliding with Black Lives Matter protests and disproportionate Black deaths from Covid-19 to raise an urgent question, CalMatters writes: Will these overlapping crises accelerate the Black exodus from California’s cities or force a reckoning throughout the state? About 275,000 Black Californians have left high-cost coastal cities in the last three decades — some by choice and others by eviction or displacement.

On every score, the pandemic is having an outsized impact on Latinx people, but the magnitude of the problem is hard to determine: ethnicity has been reported in only half of confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide and in fewer than 10 percent in states like Texas, with large Latinx populations and a raging virus problem, according to a white paper by UnidosUS, The Latino Community in the Time of Coronavirus.  The available data indicate that Latinx people, who make up 18.5 percent of the nation’s population, account for 35 percent of its Covid-19 cases. More than half of patients ages 5-17 are Latinx. Around 65 percent of Latinx households have lost wages or work due to the pandemic.

The Latinx community became a target of Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who is fighting for re-election. He attributed his state’s steady increase in Covid-19 to the reluctance of  “the Hispanic population” to social distance and wear masks, Salon reports. A Pew Research survey shows the opposite is true: 74 percent of Latinx adults reported wearing a mask in public all or most of the time, compared with 69 percent of Black adults, 80 percent of Asian adults, and 62 percent of White adults. Fewer than half of conservative Republicans say they wear a mask.

The federal government’s own medical experts say that separating immigrant children from their parents adds to “the physical and mental trauma to detained families who know they are unable to protect themselves from the deadly, rapidly spreading pandemic,” Buzzfeed reports. The experts, hired by the Department of Homeland Security, protested an order to release children from detention centers across the country, which could break up families. Meanwhile, a new federal report finds that three children died in US Customs and Border Protection custody in 2019, prompting questions about medical care in the agency’s Southwest border facilities.

Disruption in America continues to inspire bold thinking and action. On the Data for Progress website, Janelle Jones calls on policymakers to center Black women. By addressing the needs of the group that’s always hit first in a downturn and slowest to reap the benefits of a rebound — an ideology she calls Black Women Best — leaders can enact deliberate strategies of inclusion and lift the floor for everyone.

On KALW radio, host Ethan Elkind explores the case for reparations in California, with Angela Glover Blackwell and other leading Black thinkers. The Activist Files podcast examines what equity looks like at this moment. Justice Matters teams up with the Radical Imagination podcast, hosted by Blackwell, to look at solutions to systemic racism and economic inequality. 

In Portland, Oregon, where Black Lives Matter demonstrations have continued uninterrupted for more than 50 nights, unidentified armed federal agents have attacked protesters and hauled them away in unmarked vans. The shocking display of authoritarian force has provoked nationwide outrage and a lawsuit against the federal government by officials in Oregon. Dozens of women linked arms Sunday to form a protective "wall of moms" around the protesters, NBC News reports, while President Trump threatens to send troops to Chicago and other American cities.

In Los Angeles, Latinx activists are pushing for solidarity with the Black community to confront racism, the Los Angeles Times reports. It’s a reflection of years of coalition building between Black and Latinx people working together on issues such as criminal justice and reentry. “I think a lot of the Hispanic activists, we view the Black community … as trailblazers,” said 28-year-old pastor Rene Molina. “We see them when they speak out. We find ourselves in their voice. When they express their anger, we can relate to that. When they express the pain, we can relate to that.”

PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:

  • Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
  • Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
  • Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns. 

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We hope you find the COVID-19 and Race Series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.