Philanthropy vs Reparations

Updated: May 21

One would hope that philanthropy could promote justice. After all, that’s where the money is. According to Rob Reich, the Director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the total capitalization of foundations in 2014 was more than $800 billion. On the other hand, as Julia Travers points out in her recent article in Inside Philanthropy, less than 2 percent of funding from our largest foundations targeted the black community in 2011.

Because foundations are tax-exempt, Reich estimates they cost the US government at least $50 billion in forgone federal tax revenue. That doesn’t seem fair. Reich does not conclude in his book, Just Giving (2018), that Foundations are necessarily unjust, but rather that they can and should find more innovative solutions to social issues,

Supporting institutions that are addressing past injustices would seem to fit this prescription. The question is whether a philanthropic perspective can comprehend the meaning of reparations. There are differences. Differences in conceptualizing the problem, in defining the relationships, and in changing the context.

Conceptualizing the Problem

For the most part, the philanthropic perspective locates the problem with the receivers of the help. They need things. It may be things they deserve if they have been exploited or harmed, but the solution is largely to increase their resources.

Reparations focuses on repair: the repair of broken relationships. The repair involves making things right. What “making things right” means will depend on the negotiations among the parties involved.

Defining the Relationships

In the world of philanthropy, there are givers or donors and receivers. Donors take pride in their good deeds, as they should from their perspective. Still, the relationship tends to be feudalistic with subjects of the crown becoming patrons of their lords. True, some donors may try to empower others, but they seldom dis-empower themselves.

Reparations define the relationship between the participants very differently. No one has put their finger on the key character of reparations better when Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Reparations beckon us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is— the work of fallible humans (We Were Eight Years in Power, 2017, p. 202).

Reparations, in other words, not only impacts those who have been harmed, but also the perpetuators, or more generally, the benefactors of racism. The issue here is white supremacy and arrogance. What’s the opposite? White contrition? White humility? At least, reparations would mean that instead of inviting the vulnerable to apply for our assistance, we would listen for them to invite us to join them in making a viable future for all of us.

Changing the Context

We live today in a context of injustice—a climate of injustice. No better evidence than the unequal distribution of Covid 19 vaccines. This distribution could be seen as an example of the philanthropic approach. The wealthy nations get their vaccines, and then donate vaccines to the rest.

Reparations aim for a change in the current context to a climate of justice. When the vulnerable invite us to protect them, they invite us to leave our superior status and to become one among others, living together on the earth. I think we need this change in our social climate to save the earth as a human habitat for all.

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