Racial segregation in housing is a root cause of inequalities in health, safety, education, wealth and income that have long concerned grantmakers in the United States. In recent years, the problem has won attention from major media outlets, prominent social commentators, community leaders, and some elected officials. This growing understanding may indeed exist within the philanthropic sector, as well. But grantmaking in support of state and local efforts to reduce or redress racial segregation remains rare.
A new brief from the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy draws upon a landscape scan and interviews with nearly 40 state and local nonprofit leaders concerned with housing segregation. Leaders of these established and emerging organizations across the nation report unstable, inadequate monetary support and a seeming lack of funder interest in even talking about segregation.
Chronic “Funder Disinterest”
Echoing a sentiment voiced by her peers, one nonprofit leader working in a highly segregated Northeastern metropolitan area reports being unable “to find one funder who is interested” in supporting efforts to reduce housing segregation. Another nonprofit leader reports experiencing “more than 25 years” of “funder disinterest” in supporting “actual action” on housing segregation.
Some progressive large grantmakers, such as the Ford and Kellogg foundations have provided longstanding support to national organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, which have long fought advocacy and legal battles against racial segregation. Similarly, some major foundations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have, like Kellogg and Ford, supported seminal research on the nature and harms of segregation. However, the very research that these grantmakers have funded over decades suggests that if eradicating and redressing segregation at local and regional levels does not move onto more philanthropic agendas, this problem will undermine funders’ efforts to reduce racial disparities in health, safety, education, social mobility and wealth. If grantmakers continue to choose to live with segregation, they are choosing to live with the inequalities that segregation creates, sustains, and exacerbates.
Our field scan indicates that a variety of nonprofit organizations at regional, state and local levels work to reduce segregation and/or redress harms of segregation in several ways. Organizations engage in advocacy among elected leaders and decision makers at various levels of government. They also assist African American or Latino families to make “integrative” moves from high-poverty neighborhoods to lower-poverty neighborhoods with abundant economic and educational opportunities. They seek redress for racial segregation through litigation, by resolving individual racial discrimination complaints, or via reparative measures such as securing investments in African American neighborhoods. Organizations also engage and organize community members in learning about segregation, creating solutions to segregation and making demands for reparations for segregation’s harms.
One nonprofit leader in the West describes “high demands” upon their “cash-strapped” organization because of nonexistent interest among local funders. Another leader in the South laments their reliance on state government funding. Like several of their peers in other parts of the country, this leader said such support can force advocates to navigate conservative politics in local and state government, avoid or silence themselves on controversial problems such as segregation or the siting of low-income housing in affluent areas. In such cases, philanthropic support could provide political cover as the organization takes on the problems of segregation and discrimination that upset the status quo. Because they cannot secure such support, some nonprofit leaders said they must focus only on resolution of individual discrimination complaints, as opposed to co-creation of more racially integrated communities through policy or practice changes.
Levels of segregation vary across the United States. U.S. Census data from 2017 shows that the majority of white residents in metro areas live in areas that are overwhelmingly white at levels disproportionate to the demographics of the larger region. Historically black neighborhoods have become more diverse in recent years, and as the demographer William Frey writes, “this is mostly due” to an increase in Latino residents. Meanwhile, concentrated poverty, which is related to numerous inequalities in education, income and health, continues to grow nationwide. Black and Latino people are overrepresented in high-poverty neighborhoods, with African Americans more than three times as likely and Latinos more than two times as likely as white people to live in a high-poverty neighborhood.
With segregation finally winning attention, nonprofit leaders said it is urgent for funders to support direct action and organizing among local grassroots organizations concerned with racial segregation. Such work could, one leader said, illuminate the culpability of various community institutions in creating and maintaining segregation, and support demands for restitution. This nonprofit leader echoed concerns of their peers saying, “[e]xisting policy frameworks… will never significantly redress segregation. It will require disruptive activity. Will any foundations fund disruptive activity?” Nonprofit leaders also expressed concerns that community foundations, often supported by donations from white suburbanites, may fear supporting fair housing efforts, which would include racially and economically integrating white, affluent neighborhoods.
An Agenda for Funders
In a national political environment characterized by stalemate and civil rights rollbacks, the comparably nimble and enlightened philanthropic sector is well suited to play constructive roles in this neglected space. The following recommendations are informed by our interviews with nonprofit leaders, by scholarly research and program evaluations.
Grow your own and your organization’s understanding of the history and contemporary nature of segregation in the U.S. and in the region(s) and communities where you fund. Levels of segregation vary widely across the United States. Understanding how segregation spawns and exacerbates other racial inequalities and disparate harm to Black and Latino people might illuminate connections between current grantmaking priorities.
Find and fund organizations that are taking on work to redress or reduce housing segregation, or want to. This might include organizations concerned with racial justice, traditional fair housing nonprofits, and also legal services organizations. Requests for proposals may be necessary, as a perceived lack of funder interest in segregation has forced nonprofit leaders to focus on the better-funded work of processing individual discrimination complaints. Our interviews suggest that nonprofit activity around segregation may be hard to find partly because funder interest has been seemingly nonexistent.
Support community-centered learning about segregation, including its genesis and contemporary effects, so that community members can co-create a shared narrative about segregation and “de-design” segregation or develop remedies through policy change or other means.
Stronger coordination among local and national actors could be a foundation for a national movement to redress housing segregation. As funding and convening partners, grantmakers could grow the capacity of existing and emerging national organizations to collaborate with local organizations, and with them, build a policy and action agenda informed by both a national vantage point and local on-the-ground experiences.
Susan Eaton is Director of the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.