After 200 Years, the Reparations Fight Is Gaining New Traction and Philanthropy Is Slowly Getting on Board

ACtivists with U.S. Freedmen On Code and Concerned Black American Citizens outside the white house in 2021. Bob Korn/shutterstock

Note: This article was originally published on January 4, 2022.

Black people in the United States have been fighting for reparations for enslavement, Jim Crow and other abuses committed by white Americans since at least 1783. That’s the year Belinda, a Black woman enslaved by a British loyalist, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for an annual pension as payment for the five decades of unpaid labor he had forced her to perform. 

While the fight for reparations originally had white allies—from Quakers who freed and reimbursed enslaved Africans to one peer of the founding fathers, who freed the people he was enslaving and set their families up for success in 1791—white support for Black reparations in large part died out after the end of the Civil War.

Today, though, the idea of reparations seems to be catching fire, and even American foundations are finally coming on board. Money is being moved to Black-led efforts, including one organization that has been calling for reparations since its founding in 1987. And while IP readers may have heard about the MacArthur Foundation’s $1.5 million grant to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), and the William T. Grant Foundation’s commitment to the work of reparations advocate Dr. William A. Darity, money is moving on several fronts, with major players like Omidyar, Hewlett and more getting involved.

For many white Americans, the current wave of support for reparations may seem like a sudden development. For Black Americans, though, it’s been a recurring struggle over the past 200-plus years. The federal government has also made occasional, fitful gestures toward considering the debt owed to formerly enslaved people, including General William Tecumseh Sherman’s call for “40 acres and a mule,” and an 1894 bill in the U.S. Senate to provide both a one-time $500 payment and a monthly pension to formerly enslaved people (which died on arrival).

A century later, in 1989, then-U.S. Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to create a commission that would study reparations for Black Americans, a proposal that has been stalled in Congress in some form ever since. Rather than a sudden development, support for 2019’s federal bill HR40 (the latest version of Conyers’ bill), and related reparations efforts at the international, state and local levels, are actually the result of work that has been going on in this country for a long time.

The work for reparations has also started to shift public opinion, including among white Americans. Support for the idea has more than doubled overall—from 14% to 29%—from 2002 to 2019, including an increase among white Americans from 6% to 16% in support. 

With the idea of reparations making headway in the federal government, major universities and municipal ballot boxes, and popular support for the idea growing (if incrementally), it would be natural to assume that philanthropy has had a role to play in moving this work forward. Until last summer, however, the sector has been largely absent on the issue.

Philanthropy begins to heed calls for reparations

As recently as 2019, when IP touched on the topic of reparations as part of an overall look at how funders were addressing slavery’s legacy, not a single major funder had invested in work directly related to reparations. 

Last summer, things began to change. Two major foundations, William T. Grant and MacArthur, committed to move money to two approaches to slavery reparations. Meanwhile, other organizations also started to raise and move money toward that work. 

In September of 2021, Liberated Capital—a fund created by Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth Project—announced its first round of grants. More than $1.7 million was committed to 23 organizations through Liberated Capital’s #Case4Reparations initiative, which seeks “to fuel and amplify conversations and campaigns around reparations where wealth (money or land) can be redistributed by institutions and/or governments to Black and Native American communities in the United States.” 

Leaders with Liberation Ventures, a Black-led nonprofit founded in 2020 to focus on reparations and currently fiscally sponsored by PolicyLink, said their organization has raised a total of $2.3 million so far and plans to make its first round of grants within the next six months.

Collectively, all of these efforts represent a drop in the ocean of wealth the philanthrosphere is sitting on. But it does count as movement. As more funders decide to consider or just jump right into funding this growing movement, they’ll encounter a range of approaches to the topic, and a wide array of dynamic nonprofits and experts leading the charge. 

Grant, MacArthur and different approaches to reparations

On a single day last July, the William T. Grant and MacArthur foundations announced a total of more than $4.5 million in grants related to reparations across four organizations. 

Dr. William A. Darity, a leading scholar and author in the reparations movement, will receive a total of $300,000 from Grant for work at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University to research the feasibility of paying reparations to Black American descendants of enslaved people. The grant came about after Darity provided expertise to William T. Grant as the funder developed a request for proposals for research about how to support “a fundamental reshaping of the structures of American society,” said William T. Grant Foundation President Adam Gamoran. Darity then proposed a grant for his work, and the foundation approved. 

Meanwhile, as part of $80 million in Equitable Recovery grants, MacArthur has earmarked a total of $13.25 million to 13 organizations doing reparations-related work, including in the U.S. and among the global Black diaspora created by the historic slave trade. A significant portion, $3 million over two years, will back the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW21). IBW21 will act as the administrator for half of that money in support of another organization, N’COBRA, which works on several fronts to advocate for reparations for African descendants in the U.S. The other $1.5 million will go to IBW21 for its own uses, including its signature program, the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC). Among other work, NAARC has been involved in both the Evanston, Illinois, reparations plan and creating a public awareness strategy in support of the national HR 40 bill.

MacArthur approached IBW21/NAARC and N’COBRA after the foundation’s staff and external advisors first suggested the organizations for Equitable Recovery grants. MacArthur then supported N’COBRA’s choice of IBW21 as a fiscal sponsor to administer the grant. “We were contacted out of the blue,” said N’COBRA National Co-Chair Kamm Howard.

Darity and his work at Duke University are fairly well known as a result of his 2019 testimony to Congress regarding HR 40 and his 2020 book on the topic. N’COBRA, IBW21 and its NAARC initiative have received far less attention. Readers may also be less familiar with MacArthur grantees like the Africa-America Institute or Lantigua Williams & Co. (LWC), an audiovisual production company that will use the MacArthur money to produce an initial 10-episode television broadcast about reparations.

A lesson other funders can take from Grant and MacArthur’s funding is that there many organizations working on this issue, and that the leaders and organizations working to achieve reparations aren’t in full agreement about what that looks like in execution. 

For example, NAARC and N’COBRA hold different views from Darity on whether or not the federal government should be the only jurisdiction owing reparations payments; whether closing the racial wealth gap should be the sole goal and measure of reparations; and whether or not reparations payments should be limited to Black Americans who can trace their lineage to an enslaved ancestor in the U.S. There is also some disagreement about the current national reparations bill. N’COBRA and NAARC support HR 40, while Darity said in an email that HR 40 “is a shoddily crafted piece of legislation” and that “support for true reparations is not represented, in my view, by support for HR 40.”

“This is a disagreement, not over whether or not reparations is a good idea as a matter of principle—this is a strong disagreement over what form reparations should take,” Darity said. “And I don’t think it’s a disagreement that should be minimized. But it’s a different argument from the one that has to be posed with individuals who think that reparations is not justified as a matter of principle.”

This kind of internal disagreement is almost universal among social movements, but it can lead to a certain amount of tension and competition for funds among key players. One positive development on this front is represented by Liberation Ventures’ plan to engage in “connective tissue-building work” across the reparations field. As an example, LV convened a group of reparations movement leaders over the summer to work together on designing a public opinion survey, rather than crafting and administering the survey on its own. Once the survey has been completed and the results compiled, they will be shared with partners in the field.

Money is following the movement

Most of the experts I spoke with agreed that while funds may just be trickling into the reparations field at the moment, this trickle has the potential both to last and to grow into something more significant. Liberation Ventures, for example, counts the Hewlett Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Kataly Foundation and the Fund for Nonviolence among its supporters. 

Darity said that while the William T. Grant investment is, to date, the only one his work has received, he has been contacted by other foundations seeking advice about what directions they may want to take with reparations-related projects. 

Decolonizing Wealth Project’s Liberated Capital Fund has attracted 400 individual donors alongside “a number of foundations” that Sheena Brown, the director of resource mobilization for DWP, declined to name. MacArthur is also involved, having awarded $750,000 to DWP to convene donor roundtables and “conduct a landscaping exercise of the reparations space,” according to a MacArthur spokesperson who provided details about the foundation’s support in an email.

“I feel like this is a huge turning point,” said Liberation Ventures co-founder Allen Kwabena Frimpong about the MacArthur grants. “It’s unprecedented in this contemporary time of people who are doing work around reparations.”

Similarly, Sheena Brown of Decolonizing Wealth said she thinks the recent flow of foundation money into reparations is significant.“I think it’s certainly grounded in something real, because we’re seeing real dollars getting committed to this work by way of MacArthur, as you mentioned, and certainly the work that we’re doing at Liberated Capital and a few others that are making substantial commitments,” she said.

For Dr. Ron Daniels, president of IBW21, the MacArthur grant has “[really] thrown a gauntlet down at this moment, saying foundations need to step up, and they need to be involved in a process of dealing with this national reckoning.” He hopes that MacArthur’s actions will be used as “leverage” by program officers in other foundations.

In a written statement to IP, the MacArthur Foundation indicated that it hopes its movement into reparations will attract “more attention, activity and funding for this work going forward.” While Grant President Adam Gamoran called reparations “the leading edge” of the work to eliminate racial inequality, he also suspects that “as the idea gathers momentum, we may find others who are interested in supporting this work.” 

Bush Foundation President Jen Ford Reedy, on the other hand, said she doesn’t necessarily believe that funders are about to get on board with reparations as a specific cause. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of philanthropy behind that notion of reparations,” she said, as opposed to the movement of money toward racial equity work more generally. Bush made a $100 million commitment last March to increase the wealth of Black and Native American communities in its service areas.

For Reedy, it’s also important to clarify the distinctions between reparations—actions taken to right a specific wrong done to a specific group of identifiable people, like descendants of enslaved people—and either more general reparative actions taken by individuals and organizations that recognize they have benefited from racist systems, or efforts to address existing racial inequities. 

“I think the conversation gets super-blurry about what’s reparations and not, and then what’s just general racial equity work,” she said. 

Examples of reparative action, Reedy said, include Bush’s $100 million reparative trust funds and South Dakota State University’s Wokini Initiative, which dedicates the funds from the school’s original land-grant assets to support Native students. 

Apart from both reparations and reparative actions, Reedy said, “there’s this giant body of really exciting things that are happening in philanthropy and beyond, that are just more intensively focused around racial equity in the work that they always already do. So if you already do grants, and now you have more of a focus on racial equity within your grants, that’s awesome.”

For Daniels of IBW21, this distinction is also important. A focus on equity is great, he said, “but equity speaks to what will be done from this point on. It does not deal with the accumulated harms of the past. So we’re just simply there to say, wonderful, implement equity policies. But equity policies are not reparations.”

“Be bold, be creative, believe in our ancestral practices to lead us”

The story of MacArthur’s grants to IBW21/NAARC and N’COBRA demonstrates that even nonprofits that haven’t made a media splash may be able to attract the attention of major foundations in their own backyards. Darity’s experience with William T. Grant shows that experts who are generous enough to share their knowledge with funders shouldn’t necessarily hesitate to ask that the giving should go both ways. 

Decolonizing Wealth Project’s Sheena Brown, herself an experienced practitioner of “fundrais[ing] while Black or Brown,” said that nonprofits working in reparations and racial justice “need to be bold.” She added, “We have to be creative, we have to believe in our ancestral practices to lead us in this work, because the solutions we are bringing forward root way back to that. First and foremost is to shake off the boxes that we’ve been put in over the years. This is part of the healing that can shift how we think about doing our work and become really open to other new, exciting practices.”

And while N’COBRA’s Howard admitted that, as yet, his organization doesn’t know how to go out and pursue the kind of funding that came to his doorstep with the MacArthur grant, “there’s money out here,” and organizations working in reparations should apply to get it. 

Even if reparations nonprofits’ initial approaches fail, he said, the act of reaching out to funders itself “builds momentum, and that helps us advance the movement.”