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How Liberal Nonprofits Are Failing Those They're Supposed To Protect

Under the premise of social change, what many have come to rightfully recognize as the nonprofit industrial complex moves throughout the insides of genuine movements, commodifying, recycling, and taming anything too radical.

William C. Anderson 5 October 2017

Southern Poverty Law Center headquarters, Montgomery, Alabama.

It’s reasonable that in a time of confusion and disarray people would seek out the nonprofit brands they know best. What’s unfortunate is that these organizations have styled themselves into such a thing as a brand. The words “movement” and “resistance” have become common, co-opted keywords for liberal constituents to identify with, work for, and donate to in the name of social change. But these nonprofits are falling short of what they could and should be accomplishing for the greater good. To make themselves attractive to donors on one side and policymakers on the other, most successful nonprofits must strain themselves through the filter of white liberal accommodationism. This isn’t helping any movement, but instead harming many of them.

A truly progressive, grassroots nonprofit is truer in name than a large “successful” one. This is because what often defines and dictates success in the nonprofit world is funding. The foundations, grants, and donors that decide who is and isn’t worthy give out guidelines as well as money. What should be in the hands of the people often ends up being restricted to the wealthy elite who have the money to decide for them, a microcosm of the capitalist USA itself. Universities, nonprofit organizations, unions, and so on lead people to think their participation and involvement are more radical than they actually are. In fact, the nonprofit system is often counterproductive in dire times.

For nonprofits oriented toward social justice causes, working within the system means working with The Democratic Party. Together they have codified their style of response into a liberal standard. Under the premise of social change, what many have come to rightfully recognize as the nonprofit industrial complex moves throughout the insides of genuine movements, commodifying, recycling, and taming anything too radical. What passes for too controversial isn’t difficult to ascertain: It basically ends up being anything that’s not in line with the party politics or personal feelings of the people who hand down the money. Leaders like executive directors, their staffs, and their organizations become subject to the whims of those very much unlike the vulnerable people the nonprofits are claiming to serve.

The election of Donald Trump has been good for nonprofits like The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They raised 24 million dollars in one weekend after Trump’s first immigration ban order. The New York Times reported, “Those donations came from at least 356,306 individual donors, and about two-thirds of those who gave money were believed to be first-time donors.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that many of these first-time donors were also persuaded to sign up for the ACLU email list during the donation process, where they could be asked regularly to donate again in the future. During this period, the organization “also gained 150,000 to 200,000 new members. It had 400,000 when Mr. Trump was elected in November.” This year, the ACLU caused outcry with its repeated dedication to defending free speech on all sides, including that of white supremacists. People took to social media to express their disgust at the idea that the ACLU would use the millions of dollars they raised to defend the violent reactionaries who are threatening people’s lives, but so far the ACLU (despite some internal resistance) has held steady in its commitment to doing so.

The ACLU’s legal director defended this practice, writing “We protect the First Amendment not only because it is the lifeblood of democracy and an indispensable element of freedom, but because it is the guarantor of civil society itself. It protects the press, the academy, religion, political parties, and nonprofit associations like ours. In the era of Donald Trump, the importance of preserving these avenues for advancing justice and preserving democracy should be more evident than ever.” The irony is usually lost on those who are not realistic enough to recognize even the founding documents of this country are white supremacist tools that codify and enshrine the mindsets that enable Trump today. How can you then defend people harmed by white supremacist logics without acknowledging this fact? An appeal to the traditions of the United States or its constitution is not an attack on white supremacy, but an endorsement.

The ACLU’s kind of false balancing of the problems we face throughout the US has been happening across the nonprofit world. The well-funded Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are also guilty in this regard. Both organizations condemn “hatred” and denounce “hate groups” across the spectrum, including those created by people who are oppressed and responding to the white supremacist society they're living in. In recent news appearances and published pieces, representatives of both organizations have condemned anti-fascists as a threat and listed “black separatists” as the largest category of “hate groups” in the country.

These three groups take part in a massive push to minimize the impacts of white supremacy to mere disagreement. By this logic, treacherous institutional projects become mishaps we all need to work together to fix, including those who are most oppressed. Ultimately this ends up conflating the aggression of the oppressor with any and every reaction of the oppressed. Oppression — be it based on gender, race, class, or anything else — becomes a problem we all have to deal with as if we all have equal roles in enabling it or benefitting from it. What’s evil is made tolerable because if wrongdoing isn’t downplayed and all inclusive with everyone’s “perspective,” even that of oppressors, nonprofits run the risk of being condemned as too partisan by the liberal establishment. For the sake of white supremacy, things like “free speech” become a right to demand someone else’s extermination.

It doesn’t stop with predominantly white organizations. Of all the years the NAACP should have broken with its tradition of inviting presidents to address their annual convention, this one seemed fitting. Instead, it extended an invitation to Trump that, embarrassingly, got rejected. Their response is the epitome of liberal accommodationism. NAACP Board Chairman Leon Russell told the Associated Press that “Presidents going back to Ronald Reagan have addressed the NAACP” and questioned the president’s commitment to black Americans. He went on to say “We have lost — we've lost the will of the current administration to listen to issues facing the black community. When President Trump is ready to listen to us and the people we serve, we will be here." Trump entered the presidential race as a virulent bigot and made clear he planned on discriminating once in office, but these tepid talking points show that for these organizations the appearance of objectivity is more important that apparent truth.

One final example truly shows how nonsensical centrist liberal nonprofit politics can be. Following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the president’s lack of a condemnation, the AFL-CIO moved slowly to leave its place on Trump’s manufacturing council. While their participation in the first place remains a mystery, the fact that for-profit corporations beat them to the exit was astonishing. In a statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said “We joined this council with the intent to be a voice for working people and real hope that it would result in positive economic policy, but it has become yet another broken promise on the President's record.”

All of these nonprofit organizations share a common thread. Their attempts to reach out to and negotiate with an authoritarian administration, white supremacy, and other oppressive entities doesn’t liberate us. Millions of people across the US follow the lead of these organizations and their often misleading directives. While they proclaim a refusal to normalize the current administration, their unwillingness to break from their liberal mold and take the necessary steps to mobilize people into a force for substantive change suggests that their priorities have not changed. We can’t expect otherwise because the nonprofit system serves to contain our rebellion against what we’re facing, and transform it into talking points, discussion panels, and petitions. What we need is the exceptional unflinching will to fight in ways so radical, they scare us.

Whenever there is a crisis, nonprofits and non-government organizations become a quick and easy way for people to “do something.” But even if we make selective use of the nonprofit system with the understanding that it cannot advance our more revolutionary goals, we must ask ourselves how much of our time and money it drains toward counterproductive ends. Familiar approaches will not suffice in our increasingly abnormal, monstrous situation. If we don’t have the courage to challenge processes we know that are not working, how can we make a decisive step to overtake a world that so blatantly works against us?

William C. Anderson is a freelance writer. His work has been published by The Guardian, MTV and Pitchfork among others. Many of his writings can be found at Truthout or at the Praxis Center for Kalamazoo College, where he is a contributing editor covering race, class, and immigration.

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