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Taking Account of Race: The Philanthropic Imperative

October 08, 2008

Lamarche_lgThat was the title of the opening event in the 2008-09 Waldemar A. Nielsen Issue Forums in Philanthropy at Georgetown University on Friday, October 3. The evening's keynote remarks were delivered by the always insightful Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies.

Here's an excerpt:

"I asked to talk about race today...because there are three powerful forces, societal and philanthropic, that make this an important moment to do so. First, race and its impact are more central than ever to the national discourse, because of Barack Obama's candidacy, in a way that it has not been for some time. And the senator's own thoughtful, candid, and eloquent engagement with it in his March 18 Philadelphia speech set a very high bar, assuming the intelligence of the American people in a way that is all too rare among politicians and challenging us to talk about it more. Second, the Greenlining Institute's work on race and philanthropy, one impact of which was California Assembly Bill 624, to require reporting by larger foundations on the racial and ethnic composition of their staff, boards and grantees...has certainly gotten everyone's attention. The initially inadequate response of some of our California brethren shows that we all have a lot of work to do, and I'd like to offer some of my own thoughts on this particular approach to race and philanthropy. And finally, we are in a period in the foundation and nonprofit sector where effectiveness is the mantra, metrics the path, good outcomes the holy grail. How, then, do we think of race in this environment?

"Let us start with the moment. What might it mean, we are all asking -- or, rather, often not asking, race being the elephant in the room in this historic presidential election -- for America to have a black president, for the most powerful and visible leader on the planet to be a man of African ancestry, a man whose parents' interracial marriage was a crime at the time of his birth in the state of Virginia, just across the bridge from here, where polls show him leading his opponent as of this afternoon?

"We don't know, and it is exciting, no matter what your presidential preference, to imagine the possibilities. But we do know it will not obliterate America's racial history, absolve us of our sins, or 'put race behind us' once and for all. I don't want to seem like one of those people who don't like to be confused with the facts, or who tend to see just the cloud, not the lining. But Barack Obama's elevation to the presidency would leave the Senate without a single black member -- a situation that has remained constant for all but a few moments of American history -- only two Latinos, and two Asian-Americans, both from Hawaii. On November 5, there will still be only two black governors -- the second and third in post-Reconstruction U.S. history -- only one Latino, and only one of Asian descent, and the percentage of people of color in the House of Representatives will remain at best half of their presence in the population as a whole -- a percentage which, we all know, is growing to the point where many of us in this room will at some point in the coming decades live in a majority non-white country. The political world, like the financial world and most centers of power in America, is way out of line with the reality of the country...."

To read the complete transcript of Gara's remarks, click here.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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