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The Commodification of Racial Equity

By Dayvon Love

Overview: The human social services sector, while seen as a sector centered on caring, is none the less a business. While in the past excluding discussions on racism and white supremacy was good for business, increasingly, claiming to be able to address racism in the sector has itself become a business. Individuals without a deep understanding of Black history and culture are now opportunistically latching onto the term “race equity”. The integrationist/multicultural framework many of these “experts” use is actually the opposite of a community empowerment framework and thus, ironically, runs counter to the goal of truly promoting race equity. To combat this, we must recenter race equity on grassroots expertise build from creating independent Black institutions and mine the knowledge of Black service providers traditionally excluded from academic conversations.

Intro: The Assumption of Black Inferiority

The institutions that function as leaders in the human/social service sector have an operational methodology that is rooted in notions of white supremacy and Black inferiority. In Na’im Akbar’s book, Papers on African Psychology, he criticizes mainstream social science and its approach to studying Black people. He says,

“A perusal of the traditional social science literature reveals consistent assumption of white supremacy. Almost without exception, the research that has been conducted on black bodies, minds and groups within the model of traditional western science shows blacks to be categorically inferior to whites.”

The mere fact that blacks are only studied in comparison with whites reveals that the underlying model is whiteness. McGee and Clark (1973) appropriately observe that:

“Where there is equality between things, there are no differences and therefore no psychological research. The way a person frames a question determines the limits within which his answer can possibly fall.”

Poor and working-class Black people who are the primary recipients of social programs are understood as people who are in need of being fixed. Phrases like the “achievement gap” imply the notion that Black people need to be helped in order to live up to the standards of white people. “At-risk” is a designation that characterizes poor and working-class Black youth as being hindered by pathology that needs to be addressed. Joyce Ladner, in the introduction of her book called The Death of White Sociology, describes the complaints of Black social science students and Black people that were the subjects of study. She says that:

“…many of the intervention strategies that were derived from research findings had acted to exacerbate the problems, not to solve them. All too often the ‘white perspective,’ which has assumed that the Black community is the center of social pathology, has been the modus operandi, and social researchers have produced data consistent with this perspective.”

The language that constitutes the mainstream and widely accepted worldview in the human/social service sector is coded with notions of Black inferiority that animate the nature of the services that are traditionally funded by philanthropy and the public sector.

Against “Disaster Managment”

The notion that Black people are inherently inferior and pathological shape the standard for the kinds of government- and foundation-funded programming that is commonplace in Baltimore and places around the country. Programs structured from the vantage point of Black inferiority take the form of disaster management. This approach to social programs has two main components.

First, disaster management approaches to providing services places a heavy emphasis on harm reduction in vital areas. The efforts to reduce infant mortality, to reduce teen pregnancy, to increase high school graduation rates, and so on are the usual focus of approaches to harm reduction. Attempting to address these harms is not the problem. The problem is that over-emphasis on harm reduction obscures investments in building the community’s capacity to sustainably address and prevent these problems without the reliance on outside entities. Black people’s relationship as a community to these institutions is one of being primarily a recipient of services. The investments in Black people under the harm reduction framework serve as an investment in our dependence on the white-led human/social service sector that has been ineffective at producing harm reduction of tangible benefit to the community, and, in many cases, are just instruments of maintaining the status quo. Eric Tang, in his essay “social service or social change?” appearing in the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, makes an important distinction between social service (which is another way to describe what I am calling the harm reduction approach) and social change. He says:

“While there is some overlap between social service provision social change work, the two do not necessarily go readily together. In our violent world, the needs and numbers of survivors are never ending, and the task of funding staffing, and developing resources for our organization to meet those needs are difficult, poorly supported, and even actively undermined by those with power and wealth in our society. Although some groups are both working for social change and providing social services there are many more groups providing social services that are not working for social change. In fact, many social service agencies may be intentionally or inadvertently working to maintain the status quo.


After all, the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) wouldn’t exist without a lot of people in desperate straits. The NPIC provides jobs; it provides opportunities for professional development. It enables those who do the work to feel good about what we do and about our ability to help individuals survive the system. It gives a patina of caring and concern to the ruling class which funds the work. While there is always the risk of not securing adequate funding, there is a greater risk that if we did something to really rock the boat and address the roots of the problems we would lose whatever funding we’ve already managed to secure.”

Social change requires the kind of empowerment where a community is able to sustain its own journey toward prosperity. The focus on harm reduction takes the focus away from the social change aspect of the work which requires investment in formations that are empowered and independent of mainstream white-led institutions.

Secondly, disaster management frames out the notion that there is expertise in the communities that are being served. There has been decades of research that has been done on Black people. These studies have often been commissioned and carried out by institutions in the human/social service sector who primarily understand Black people as being plagued by pathology. The purpose of the research is to figure out the exact nature of the pathology and at best to develop solutions to rid Black people of our pathologies. In their essay “Toward the Decolonization of Social Research,” Robert Blauner and David Wellman illustrate how this dynamic manifests itself. They argue:

“It was the entire relationship between researcher and researched that was resented [by the community being researched]. In this relationship the objects of study saw themselves as exploited-because books are written but oppressive conditions remain; as distorted or humiliated—because they get put into invidious categorical bags such as ‘the culturally deprived’; and as repressed—because sociologists intentionally or unintentionally produce studies which are used to keep people in their place.”

Even in this moment where there is more explicit realization of racism in the non-profit and human service space there is a move to understand the impact of trauma and poverty on Black people, which heightens the awareness of institutional racism, this still renders Black people primarily as a people that need to be fixed by outside institutions. This notion makes it difficult for many people to see expertise, scholarship, and deep levels of understanding that exist within the community itself. This is manifested in the fact that there are many people who have been able to make a career serving Black people who have not immersed themselves in the history, culture and the methodologies produced by Black people. There are numerous non-profit organizations that mostly serve Black people who describe themselves as serving “the underserved” or the “disadvantaged.” These organizations are often led by people who would not claim to have a rigorous and thorough understanding of Black people but are able to benefit professionally and personally from their position in their organizations.

Beyond the “Tough Conversation”

One of mistakes that is often made in conversations by well intentioned people when addressing racial equity is that merely having tough conversations about race is enough. It is not enough to know more information about structural racism and about the history of racist policies and practices. In fact, the popularization of conversations about racial equity can have the effect of de-radicalizing the transformative potential of such an approach in maintenance of the status quo. Dr. Greg Carr of Howard University gave a speech in 1998 called “Requiem for a Timekeeper,” in which he described Dr. John Henrik Clarke’s utilization of the term “incorporated resistance.” This term refers to the way in which white institutions co-opt Black people who profess to be challenging racism by hiring them. Dr. Carr says that the approach is “you can come talk all that Black stuff, just come to work tomorrow.” There are Black people who are able to be hired by white institutions who can talk articulately about white supremacy, but due to their employment they are limited in their ability to challenge the institutions that likely pay their salaries. These people are hired in order appease those who raise the concern about racial equity. This is not a critique of Black people who are employed by these institutions, but merely a description of how the dynamic of incorporated resistance manifest itself. Race equity cannot be reduced merely to tough conversations about race. There must be the development of concrete approaches to operationalizing racial equity.

Fear of Black Power in the Human/Social Service Sector

There is a lot that could be written on how to operationalize racial equity as a methodology. Depending on the discipline, industry, and/or program area, operationalizing racial equity looks very different. There are two overarching aspects of what it means to operationalize racial equity that can be applied to any context. The first is importance of structuring an institution, organization, and program in such a way that those who are most directly impacted are in a position of power over the direction of the enterprise. Unless power is shifted into the hands of those who are disempowered by the system of white supremacy there can be no true transformation.

During the 1960’s, local poverty programs in Baltimore moved away from the focus on having community representatives in charge of these programs in addition to de-emphasizing community organizing. In an essay called “Neighborhood Matters: What Baltimore Learned from the War on Poverty,” Aiden James Faust details the way in which the community representatives and organizers that were given significant leadership positions over the agencies that managed the 1960’s poverty programs were perceived as militant and as troublemakers. This prompted then-mayor William Donald Schaefer, who by many accounts was an extension of the white corporate sector, to appoint people to head that agency who were not community residents/community organizers, but instead to hire non-profit/human services professionals.

Madeline Murphy, who served on the 1960’s poverty program Community Action Commission in Baltimore, explains in her 1979 essay “Chickens Do Come Home to Roost” that the Commission was co-opted by the City in order to satisfy other political interest. The bottom line here is that a process or practice that does not shift power into the hands of those who are disempowered by the system of white supremacy is not racial equity. The original design of the poverty programs of the 1960’s that gave community residents and community organizers power to shape and direct the program is an example of shifting power into the hands of those most directly impacted by white supremacy. The move away from this model is an example of white corporate obstruction of shifting power into the hands of the community.

The second primary aspect of racial equity is the importance of developing a perspective that is informed by the intellectual and cultural resources of Black people (people of color). As stated earlier, Black people’s lives and bodies are often studied from the intellectual and methodological lens that is based in Eurocentric ideas. Black people should not just be objects of other people’s intellectual investigation, but rather the bodies of work that Black people have produced need to be central to the study of Black people. Put simply, the ideas of Black people who study Black people who are accountable to or beholden to Black grassroots and community based formations should be a central part of the analysis used to address issues facing Black people. This can take many forms. This includes the folk knowledge that comes through people who may not have any formal academic training but who have a perspective informed by experience with the systems that we are engaging. This can also take the form of academic scholarship that is produced by Black intellectuals and practitioners who have been marginalized from the white liberal corporate mainstream.

Why White People Can’t Be The Arbiters of Expertise on Race Equity

It is important to understand the extent to which white institutions have been in a position to curate the bodies of work that is made widely available to the mainstream. In order for many Black academics, practitioners, and writers to get access to resources and gain stature in the mainstream, they must capitulate to the worldview of powerful white institutions. Black people understand that mainstream notoriety and access is reliant on these white led institutions that serve a gatekeeping function, perceiving their work as legitimate. The white people in leadership of these institutions are typically not familiar with the bodies of work that Black people have produced outside of their sphere of influence. For instance, Noliwe Rooks, in her book White Money Black Power, gives a personal account as a professor who was presenting curricula on two African American studies classes to a curriculum committee at a University:

“I got myself on the agenda of the school’s curriculum committee in order to propose two new literature courses I thought would be useful for both the English department and the new program in African American Studies. One course was a survey of African American literature from the Harlem Renaissance through the 1980s. The other was a course on African American women’s literature. At the same time, I wanted to put the curriculum committee on notice that I would be back at the next meeting with proposals for two African American history courses.


I presented proposals along with a sample syllabus for each of the two literature courses, and I outlined how both courses would fulfill distribution requirements and be easily incorporated into the existing curriculum of the English department. When I finished my presentation, there was a very long silence, along with quite a few looks exchanged between the members of the committee. One cleared his throat and said, almost to himself, ‘I wonder if we aren’t moving a bit too fast.’ I waited patiently to hear how exactly it was that the material I had presented constituted moving too fast. I was just about to ask for clarification when another committee member broke in to say, ‘Well, the real problem here is she seems to be suggesting that Blacks have written enough books to be taught in two separate classes. I mean, do all of you really believe that Black people wrote all the books listed here?’ The meeting degenerated from there. The upshot was that I was told they would approve one of the classes, the one on Black women, because they thought Black students might like taking a class on Black women’s literature from a Black woman, and besides, ‘Toni Morrison is certainly someone we can all agree is a really good writer.’”

This excerpt is illustrative of the general attitude of the leadership of mainstream, white led institutions regarding the intellectual and methodological bodies of work produced by Black people outside of their spheres of influence. She also documents the way in which the Ford Foundation became highly involved in the development of Black studies programs with the effect of de-radicalizing Black popular scholarship. Tommy Curry makes similar observations in his article “Black Studies, Not Morality.” He argues:

“The corporate foundations like Ford and Carnegie directly influenced and de-radicalized the course of Black Studies departments in the years following the Civil Rights movement from paradigms focusing on material-nationalist-radicalism accounts of racism to poststructuralist- integrationist-reformism accounts of identity through post-doctoral fellowships and grants. In contrast to our present-day articulations of neoliberalism, or more appropriately the neoliberal crisis in relation to Black Studies, we are not only bringing attention to the externality of a white supremacist corporatism which devalues Blackness, but the reification of neoliberal axioms in the production and commodification of Black radicalism by Black scholars in Black Studies.”

It is important to understand that the emergence of white liberal institutions’ (philanthropy and the university) increased involvement in the cultivation of Black scholarly leadership has elevated Black scholars who espouse integrationist paradigms that frames the solutions to Black people’s problems in the direction of increased access to and contact with white people and their theories/institutions/ideas. In fact Dr. Rooks, in the book mentioned earlier, states:

“By the end of the 1960’s, in an attempt to avoid supporting Black Studies programs based on an activist, separatist, or Black Nationalist viewpoint, Bundy—and by extension the Ford Foundation—firmly supported an organizational strategy of integration and curricular diversity for the new field. Their rationale was that Black Studies could help address Black social exclusion at the same time that the field educated whites about the literature, history, and culture of Black people… They certainly did not want Black Studies tied to efforts to promote Black Power.”

Black people have developed deep, substantive and highly effective bodies of work in a variety of fields of study and practice. Whether it is education, social work, technology, political science, philosophy, et cetera, Black people have created massive bodies of work that have been marginalized by mainstream white led institutions. Racial equity is about using these cultural and intellectual resources in the development of institutions, organizations and programs that claim to be informed by racial equity.

We Are Our own Solution: Toward A Independant Black Framework of Race Equity

Because of the general lack of regard for Black intellectual capacity, there is a dynamic that occurs where people are able to comment authoritatively about issues of race without having rigorously studied the work that Black people have done to develop advanced understandings of Black people’s approaches to addressing our issues. Dr. Joanne Martin and Elmer Martin in their book, Social Work and the Black Experience, say that “Part of the problem of social work research is that it attempts to understand Black people without making personal contact with them. It seeks to learn about Black people through government sources and by using computerized technology to interpret copious statistical data on Black pathologies. It fails to incorporate the lessons imparted by abolitionists and others who have had success working with Black people even though they were outsiders.” Practitioners in the human/social service sector must take seriously the study of Black people both in terms of immersing themselves in communities of Black people, and rigorous study of the bodies of work that Black people have produced in order to credibly make the claim that their work is rooted in racial equity.

An example of this is the Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund. The Baltimore City Council under the leadership of Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young put forward legislation in the wake of the Baltimore Uprising that required that the city set aside 3% of the city’s property taxes every year into a dedicated fund for programs serving children and youth (the fund will average about $12 million a year). There was an effort by four young Black people, including myself, to advocate for and execute the development of a fund that exemplified racial equity. The initial work on injecting racial equity into the Youth Fund began with the conversations that Danielle Torain, Samantha Mallerson, Adam Jackson, and I had over the span of a few years following the Baltimore Uprising. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (of which Adam is the CEO and I am the director of Public Policy) have been making public critiques of the non-profit sector in Baltimore for years.

I am quoted in a Baltimore Sun column written in 2013 by Lionel Foster where he writes, “…he reserves his most scathing critique for the city’s non-profit community, members of which he describes as ‘white leadership using black bodies for their own gain.’” In my first book, The Black Book: Reflections from the Baltimore Grassroots, published in September of 2014, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the fight in Baltimore against the construction of a $104 million juvenile detention facility where I discuss the way that the non-profit industrial complex attempted to co-opt our work. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) has become quite well known for this critique. After the Uprising we began to build a relationship with Danielle Torain and Samantha Mallerson, who were both program officers at the Annie E. Casey foundation at the time. They were working from the inside to push philanthropy to be more responsive to community-centered approaches to grant making in the face of the flood of dollars that was being pushed out of the door.

Given the extensive background that we all had in doing work informed by racial equity in Baltimore, we would have conversations about how to institutionalize the practice of racial equity in the human/social service sector. When the residents of Baltimore City voted in favor of the referendum item that authorized the development of the Youth Fund in November of 2016, we saw an opportunity to intervene. Adam was appointed co-chair of the Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund Task Force. The foundational documents that became the charge of the task force to the Baltimore City Council was centered on the importance of racial equity and capacity building. The acknowledgment of the way that white supremacy has produced a racist human/social service sector, the importance of empowering residents of Baltimore that are not traditionally in decision making positions, and the importance building up the infrastructure and capacity for grassroots organizations who are doing great work, particularly Black led grassroots organizations that have untapped expertise, were core elements of the charge produced by the task force. One of the most important features of the Youth Fund is this idea that community members that would traditionally be excluded from decision making on this kind of funding would be empowered to select the awardees. We borrowed heavily from the work of Cooperation Jackson and others in Jackson, Mississippi, who were organizing people’s assemblies as their methodology of facilitating democratic grassroots community decision making. This is a model that has its roots in the Ella Baker, Septima Clark approach to community organizing. The foundation of their approach reveres the inherent capacity of working-class and poor Black people to make decisions for their own lives. The point here is that this approach is rooted in a knowledge of bodies of work Black people have produced in order to address these kinds of issues.

Through the work of many partners and support from the community, we were able to usher in a process by which Baltimoreans, predominately Black people who traditionally would not be in this kind of decision making position, made decisions about which organizations in Baltimore would receive funding from the Baltimore City Children and Youth Fund. Programs like Revolutionary Summer which is a literacy program for Black girls, Sista Soul Quest which a program of an organization led by African Centered-Liberation focused health & wellness practitioners called Kindred Community Healing, the Conscious Heads Barbering Bootcamp, and many other programs that traditionally would not get funded were able to be awardees of the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund. This is a process that has been institutionalized and was informed by racial equity.

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