September 03, 2015
As people around the country mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's entirely appropriate that many should feel the need to pause and reflect on what the storm and its aftermath reveal about our troubled racial past. The images broadcast to the world from a flooded New Orleans — of panicked families stranded on rooftops, of National Guardsmen ignoring pleas for assistance from the mostly African-American crowds gathered at the squalid Superdome, of armed sheriffs denying safe passage to New Orleanians trying to flee the city on foot — were a reminder in 2005, as they are today, that the past is always with us.
That suggestion, as Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, notes, has been advanced many times, by many people. In an essay accompanying the foundation's most recent annual report, Lewis, paraphrasing Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, writes: "[T]he policing of black bodies, and the legislated use of extralegal actions, has its roots in an earlier America, where every black person was assumed to be some white person's property and many whites presumed themselves deputized to reconnect property and owner." It is an observation that lays bare the immorality of America's "peculiar institution" — and one that many would argue has no relevance to our own "post-racial" century. Lewis, a noted social historian and Foundation Center board member, isn't one of them. Like an "apparition out of time," he writes, "slavery's ghost — and the specter of race and difference — never seem to leave us."
One way to make sense of "slavery’s lingering presence," Lewis suggests, is to ask and try to answer questions about the institution through the scholarship of the humanities and the arts. For half a century, the Mellon Foundation has been one of the important private sponsors of such inquiry. Indeed, under Lewis's leadership, it has reaffirmed its commitment to scholarship and the humanities. Why? Because, in a world characterized by rapid change, the humanities matter — maybe more than ever. Foundation Center, for its part, collects and analyzes data related to how foundations like Mellon address social challenges deeply rooted in the past, from black male achievement to education reform to diversity in philanthropy. Philanthropy, by itself, can't solve these problems, any more than it can erase the legacy of slavery. But without a solid grasp of what it has done to address racial inequities in the past — and is trying to do in the present — it cannot expect to achieve its aims in the future.