The author of Winners Take All assesses the relationship between philanthropy and antiracism in an era of growing wealth among elite changemakers
On the commonsense language we unwittingly or reflexively employ with respect to social transformation often prevents us from expanding the parameters of acceptable debate
Can you say why you chose to include the term “elite” in the title of your book as opposed to, say, “ruling class” or “plutocrat”? How do these linguistic choices reflect your analysis of the problem?
I think there are a lot of different ways to cut the definition of “ruling class”. And depending on where you cut it, the nature of the problem – the nature of the crime – is slightly different. It is absolutely a problem that the top 20-25% of America has done well while the bottom 75-80% rest has not. If you cut it that way – at 20%, for instance – then we’re talking about an upper-middle-class secession from American life brought on by policies like the mortgage tax credit, property tax as the method of funding public schools, and NIMBY housing policies.
However, this isn’t where I think the heart of the problem is located. Most of the graphs you pick up show a pretty significant spike in inequality and capture when you start getting into the 1% or .01%. And this is where you see people making private, bottle-service public policy – that is, policy that has almost no public benefit other than to make society work well for the wealthy. Claiming tax deductions for private jets when so many people can’t afford daycare is an example of a rigged system. What I was interested in exploring in Winners Take All is the way in which elites at the very top use the conquest of language, of culture and of our common sense to cement their role and social position.
On the theme of philanthropy and philanthrocapitalism, you have written that “generosity is not a substitute for justice”. That is, perhaps generosity ought not to be the taken-for-granted barometer of social progress. In the spirit of racial justice, I am reminded that Malcolm X once said: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made… They won’t even admit the knife is there.” Can you describe the processes by which social and political power sustains and legitimizes itself through appeals to “generosity”?
What I am trying to do is to take on this pervasive societal habit of automatic gratitude and praise for elites who engage in various forms of do-gooding, whether that’s impact investing or social enterprise or philanthropy or any modality that falls within the “doing well by doing good” paradigm of change. This is the kind of change that allows you to stand on someone’s back while saying you’re helping them.
My book is a book about moves. It’s a book about ruling-class dance moves, if you will. There are certain dance moves that have been very effective at making us think that members of the ruling class are not the problem that in fact they are. One popular dance move is using generosity to obscure one’s own complicity in injustice. You commit an injustice and then rely on generosity on a much smaller scale to cover it up. This is the most obvious move. This happens often enough that when you see an act of plutocratic generosity you should at a minimum be skeptical.
This isn’t the only move, though. Another move is simply altering our collective conversation about what change is. The Stanford sociologists Aaron Horvath and Walter Powell show that these hyper-elites are very successful at changing the conversation. They’re good at making certain approaches to change look bad and making others look better. For example, elites often make charter schools look better than they are or make unions look worse than they are.
Or elites might introduce a new concept like “resilience”, a concept that sounds great but that is actually just about adjusting to societal crappiness rather than fixing it. What wealthy people do is rig the discourse.
I think philanthropy is a Band-Aid on a bleeding tumor. To be sure, there’s blood, and the Band-Aid helps with that. But the Band-Aid is inadequate to the underlying problem. To stretch the metaphor further: the Band-Aid may give you a false sense of confidence that the problem is being handled. In an age of extraordinary generosity from plutocrats, we are at risk of forgetting that the same class of people are also undermining the greater good every day and on an ongoing basis.
The problem with philanthropy is that it depends on and trusts the voluntarism of the people with the most to lose from change to be our changemakers. I don’t think philanthropists are all horrible people. This is not about individual morality. That is hardly the point. This is about whom you trust to play a leadership role in deciding what the common good is, what our policy priorities should be, and how we make the world better.
In so many ways, we have outsourced the betterment of our world to people with a vested interest in making sure we don’t make it too, too much better. I’m going to give an example that may sound extreme to some people: what we often do today would be analogous to if we had gone around to plantation owners in Alabama in the 1800s and asked them to lead organizations advancing racial justice. It’s impossible. They can’t be the ones to do it.
I recently read that only 7% of philanthropic dollars are awarded to groups and organizations that specifically serve people of color. Does this figure surprise you? Is the solution here to make would-be philanthropists more racially literate or should we rather strive to build an antiracist future that does not accommodate philanthropy? Or maybe the premise of my question is unfair?
There are two different answers, and they are in tension with one another. First, I don’t think we should count on the richest and most powerful people in the world – most of whom are white – to play any kind of leadership role in dismantling white supremacy. To the extent that people and organizations put philanthropic dollars to work on issues of racial justice, we need to set a new norm: money should not buy any decision-making power, especially when it comes to racial justice work.
Here’s an idea I heard during a recent discussion group I attended: a person who will remain anonymous said that non-profits that depend on philanthropic grants should form a pact, whereby they would all agree to just post the work they do on their websites, along with wire-transfer instructions. That’s it. This changes the game.
It basically says: “Hey, we don’t fundraise. We don’t take you on trips. We don’t cater to you. We don’t do PowerPoints in your office. We don’t come in and talk to your relatives and clip the wings of our diagnosis, so that you feel more comfortable. You just see the work you like and you wire us money. We’re not putting your name on anything and you don’t get to shape the initiative.”
Others who actually work in the field will be more knowledgable than me on the practicality of such an idea. But if something like this pact were to be done, racial justice organizations could play a leading role in coming up with a strong statement or manifesto declaring the era of fundraising to be over: “You can send us money, but you get zero say.”
The second piece of the answer is that we should be solving way fewer of these problems through philanthropic giving in the first place. We should be living in a world in which people can’t make as much money as they do right now and profit to a cruel degree on the labor of poor people, mostly black and brown, and then turn around and be able to throw coin at them. This type of change is only achievable through policy. So when Elizabeth Warren proposes a wealth tax in part to fund universal childcare, her motivation is to achieve broad-based justice for many people without putting the ruling class in a leadership position.
And if the ruling class doesn’t like it, they are free to choose any country on earth that offers them a better deal. I am a patriot. I don’t think they’re going to go anywhere. All these billionaires who threaten to take the next plane to Singapore if we tax their 10 millionth dollar at 70% or we take 2% of their wealth in a wealth tax – I think they’re all bluffing and I’m willing to play poker with any one of them.
I want to continue to talk about the relationship between capitalism and race. Cedric Robinson, author of Black Marxism, often used the term “racial capitalism”. Robinson’s basic argument was that capitalism sprouted from a certain type of feudal European order that was already infused with what we would now term “racism” or, at the very least, racialism. This basically means that we can’t fully understand capitalism’s contours without a deep understanding of its racist underpinnings. What do you make of this? And can you say more about how “the elite charade of changing the world” is, in part, a race project, or a project that sustains racial hierarchies?
One of the things I found dispiriting after the Trump victory was a tribalism of diagnosis. There was a weird dynamic where some people thought his support was all based on economic anxiety. Others rightly pushed back, by saying: “You know, Trump actually won affluent voters.”
Those who rightly pushed back emphasized the role racial resentment played. Sometimes to their own detriment, though, this camp cast every Trump voter as an avowed racist. I don’t think this is accurate. What is inarguable is that racism was not a dealbreaker for any Trump voter.
The way I see it, the supremacy of race and the supremacy of capital are richly entwined. Today, you have multiple sensations of theft afflicting the American public. One theft – the one I think is genuine and real – is the plutocratic theft. It is absolutely the case that the 1% has stolen the future from the great majority of Americans and has rigged the system.
There is a second widespread sensation of theft – the sensation of a demographic theft. It’s a feeling among white people and men – in particular, white men – that their country is being taken from them. Of course, it’s a worry of losing something one never should have had in the first place. It’s not actually a theft. However, the sensation of that theft is real.
Too many of us dismissed that and said: “Get over it,” as opposed to saying: “If so many of you are feeling this way, then we actually have a national problem.” Educating others not to blame the wrong people or policies for what they’re feeling is part of the work. Hoping millions of people will get woke on their own time isn’t idealism; it’s a dangerous fantasy whose consequences we are now digging out of.