In our Summer 2016 issue, Philanthropy published an open letter to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker—“Beware of Blind Spots” by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner—as Ford launched what it promised would be a major crusade against inequality. Below, Mr. Walker responds.
Michael and Peter:
Thank you for your thoughtful letter. Clearly, we agree on many things—from the threat of inequality, to the need for social mobility, to the importance of strong institutions. Above all, we share a firm conviction that, as you phrase it so well, “the worst gaps in our society are not measured in income or wealth.”
What’s more, you are right in your appraisal of some of the key contributing factors to rising inequality—whether it’s families in crisis or gaps in our education system and community institutions—and these factors are deeply interrelated. Your observations are necessary in our approach to fighting inequality, but, in and of themselves, they are insufficient.
We know that economic inequality is the form of inequality most hotly debated, but it is only one form of the inequality we see—and are seeking to disrupt—at the Ford Foundation. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to deny that many prevalent, pernicious forms of inequality plague our society—including systemic, institutional racism, sexism, and ableism. The fact is, these different forms of inequality often compound on one another, producing and reinforcing conditions for economic inequality.
Given this confluence of factors, and the complexity of these challenges, we need to capture the fullest picture of inequality in order to develop the most comprehensive, and effective, solutions.
Consider, as an illustration, the intersection of racism, economic inequality, and social mobility. Recent research shows that, on average, white households hold seven times more wealth than black households. This wealth gap is not merely a product of current income inequality; it stems, in part, from segregation and discriminatory housing policies like redlining, which set conditions for these outcomes to persist over decades. If homeownership allows one to build wealth, rise into the middle class, and pass that wealth onto your children, many families of color were delayed—or excluded entirely—from their pursuit of that possibility. These kinds of systemic imbalances leave their mark across generations, and we cannot wait for time to heal these divides. The authors of this study have reasoned this racial wealth gap would take 228 years to close at current growth rates.
To deny intersecting and longstanding realities is to manufacture a set of ultimately harmful blind spots, and to unnecessarily separate issues that are actually closely related. Instead, we can have a more deep and fruitful conversation about addressing economic inequality that includes the many other forms of inequality at work.
I understand, of course, how difficult this can be, especially coming from a position of privilege. My most recent annual letter was about how our own privilege can create and encourage ignorance—especially of those dimensions of inequality that do not touch or affect our own personal lives. One of the key tenets of the New Gospel of Wealth I proposed last year involves tackling root causes, and asking how and why our present circumstances came to be. Engaging in difficult examinations such as these will allow us to bring about lasting change, rather than short-term interventions.
One area calling out for this kind of exploration is the breakdown of families. You are right to call out this trend, and, with this wider lens, we might ask, why have these families separated?
For starters, many young men from the communities you describe do not have the opportunity to take on meaningful work, or become stable providers. Our economic transformation has resulted in what sociologist William Julius Wilson has called “the disappearance of work,” and it has not only taken away good paying jobs from these communities, but also their aspiration and hope for social mobility.
At the same time, it’s clear that another major factor in this dynamic is our national mass-incarceration crisis, which disproportionately affects black and brown men. We can easily infer the relationship between the fact that black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and the fact one in nine black children has a parent in prison.
No doubt, some of these parents have committed serious crimes, and should serve time in jail. Many, however, have been subjected to overly harsh mandatory sentencing for non-violent crimes. Either way, too often, after serving their time, many people with arrest or conviction records continue to be shut out from our society, unable to reintegrate because they are denied meaningful employment, housing, or even the ability to participate in civic life.
Given this context, strengthening families (particularly in minority communities) is inextricably tied to making progress on employment and criminal justice reform. We can no longer afford to keep these conversations separate, or ignore the dramatic role that race plays in the larger story.
In every instance, our country’s interconnected challenges require an inclusive, intersectional view of inequality. By limiting ourselves to unnecessary, and often unhelpful, binaries, we create division where we need dialogue.
One way to continue breaking down barriers between and among us is by opening our eyes and ears to those most affected by the problems—rather than pretending we know what’s best—and working with them to develop the most effective solutions.
For example, when we listen to people of color, it becomes much more difficult to say that our communities are unequivocally safer based on recent trends in policing, especially when so many people no longer feel safe. Rather than denying the lived experience of minority communities, we might work with local leaders and law enforcement to bring people together and bridge existing divides. Together, we can restore trust between these two groups that are very often placed in opposition by preprogrammed (often hyper-partisan) responses.
Ultimately, the only way we will make serious progress toward eliminating the myriad gaps in our society is by coming together ourselves, sharing our knowledge, insight, resources, and perspectives to arrive at comprehensive, compassionate solutions.
To this end, I look forward for more opportunities to work together, to continue this dialogue, and to confront inequality in all of its forms.
Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation