The Black Lives Matter Black Hole
It’s easy to forget now just how promising Black Lives Matter really was. 2020 marked not only an explosion of protest, but a remarkable mobilization of sections of society hitherto unmoved by racial issues. Great swathes of the American public watched the police snuff out a man’s life on the tarmac, and decided they’d had enough. This time, everyone agreed, it was different.
Two years on, however, and even the most sympathetic observers are beginning to admit the movement has lost its sting. Sure, all-white boardrooms are frantically trying to pad themselves out with queer black women to whom they can quietly condescend, banks are still drafting declarations about their commitment to the communities whose member they’ve never quite been able to trust with a mortgage, and self-loathing white journalists are writing drab fungible articles about Black Panther instead of Captain America; but for poor, working-class black people, very little has changed. For all the endless talk of racial redress, for all the manic posting, Biden’s flagship George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was blocked in the Senate, and even in local jurisdictions like Minneapolis, reforms are quietly being watered-down.
And in the midst of these disappointments come new revelations about the state of BLM’s finances. At the centre of the storm is Patrisse Cullors, one of the movement’s founders, former executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF), and creator of the famous #BLACKLIVESMATTER hashtag. Last year, Cullors stepped down from her official role after being criticized for a flurry of property purchases: four luxury homes, including a $1.4 million Malibu villa, with an eye, according to the New York Post, to expanding her portfolio into the Bahamas. BLM claims to have given Cullors a total of $120,000 in compensation between 2013 and 2019, before transferring her to an unpaid role; that figure, however, appears not to include work for affiliated charities, independent consultancy work financed by BLM donations, or speaking engagements undertaken in the BLM name.
In January this year New York Magazine published an investigation detailing the web of consultants, middle-men, and cronies affiliated with Cullors alleged to have been profiting from BLM in one way or another. Alongside BLMGNF, for instance, Cullors has been heavily involved in several other non-profits, including three related to criminal-justice reform: Dignity and Power Now, JusticeLA, and the Justice Teams Network. Not only do these nominally independent organizations see hundreds of thousands of dollars flow between them, but they have given repeated pay-outs to a number of Cullors’ associates. Sean Kevin Campbell, the journalist who broke the story, reported that:
The organizations are linked through a person named Christman Bowers, who has also gone by Shalomya Bowers. He is listed as Dignity and Power Now’s chief financial officer and as the treasurer of a local political committee, Reform LA Jails. In 2019, while working on an ultimately successful ballot initiative, Reform LA Jails collected more than $1.4 million in contributions. More than half was paid out to just four recipients. The group sent more than $270,000 to Bowers’ consulting company, as well as some $211,000 to Asha Bandele, a friend of Cullors’ who co-wrote her memoir. About $205,000 went to a company Cullors operates with her spouse, Janaya & Patrisse Consulting. And about $86,000 was paid to Trap Heals LLC, an entertainment, clothing, and consulting company started by Damon Turner, the father of Patrisse Cullors’ child.
And other major non-profits recognized as part of the BLM cause are suspected of even more egregious mismanagement. For instance, two founders of “Violence in Boston,” a major non-profit which states as its mission “to improve the quality of life and life outcomes of individuals from underserved communities by reducing the prevalence of violence and the impact of associated trauma while addressing social injustices,” have just been arraigned on 18 counts of wire fraud, conspiracy, and making false statements on a mortgage application, following a huge swell in donations amid the 2020 George Floyd protests.
It’s all one big mess. And yet the response to the investigative reporters who have questioned BLM’s finances has been astonishingly hostile. Campbell, for instance, was excoriated as “sexist” and “racist” by Asha Bandele for his inquiries (“For the record,” he clarified, “I am a Black man, raised by a single Black woman, and police have pointed guns at me.”) In a profile in the Los Angeles Times, Cullors herself dismissed such reporting as “Not just a character assassination campaign, but a campaign to actually get me assassinated.” Coverage, meanwhile, has been largely restricted to right-wing media outlets like the New York Post and the Daily Mail; the liberal mainstream, by contrast, has largely ignored the story.
In fact, the decision seems to have been taken in the media to treat this as a partisan issue: reactionaries on one side, salivating over a new set of black people to criminalize; liberals on the other, plugging their ears with good intentions. But to let this happen would be a mistake. The rumors and charges that haunt BLM’s various professionalized arms suggest not just individual sleaze, but a deep flaw in American institutional life that has been ignored for years, and in which media across the political spectrum, through their silence, have long been complicit. BLM is just the latest movement to be swallowed by a non-profit sector that is corrupt to its core.
BLM is just the latest movement to be swallowed by a non-profit sector that is corrupt to its core.
Cullors’ case, in particular, is incredibly telling. It’s easy to conflate the alleged crimes of the founders of Violence in Boston with the glad-handing of Cullors’ associates, but the fact remains that there is no clear evidence Cullors has actually broken the law. As compliance experts in Campbell’s article affirm, “close interactions among people in the non-profit world are inevitable, especially in a niche like racial justice.” In other words, a degree of cronyism and self-dealing is the norm, even if it might leave a sour taste in some donors’ mouths. This is not to excuse the six-figure consulting fees, the ghost-writing deals, the unexplained payments to baby-daddies and spouses in any moral sense – but rather to suggest that in the non-profit sector, with its rampant compliance culture, doing the right thing is far less important than having the right paperwork. The real scandal, in fact, was that this all might have been legal.
If we look closely at the structure of BLMGNF and other organizations affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, it becomes clear that this kind of self-dealing is pretty much endemic. Cullors’ network may be the most egregious example – but shady middle-men, greedy consultants, and self-aggrandizing bureaucrats are all staples of the sector. Some of the most interesting protagonists in the BLM saga are the so-called “fiscal sponsors” – strange, often publicity-shy NGOs which are used by fledgeling non-profits to secure tax-exempt status, and which take a cut of donations in return. In the case of BLMGNF, this role was performed by an NGO named “Thousand Currents.” Though, according to Campbell, “the typical industry rate is between 5 and 10 percent,” Thousand Currents took 15%, resulting in revenues, in the fiscal year following George Floyd’s murder, of $86.9 million. In 2020, BLMGNF switched sponsors to the Tides Foundation, a larger outfit which took a fee of 9%. The idea of such fiscal sponsors is that they take over some of the administrative costs from the organizations they champion: which in practice, of course, means hiring a number of managers, administrators, and third-party consultants, no expense spared.
How different really are these fiscal sponsors from Cullors herself? What makes Cullors look particularly guilty is the fact that she had personal connections to so many of the middlemen to whom she awarded a cut of donations; Thousand Currents, meanwhile, hides behind a mantle of bureaucratic anonymity. But the model, in both cases, is the same: donations are siphoned off to enrich an in-group, which looks, under scrutiny, very different from the people the movement was originally intended to help.
Donations are siphoned off to enrich an in-group.
The fact is that the non-profit sector is dominated by informal networks of professional self-interest. If it’s not immediate family members and friends charity professionals are glad-handing, it’s potential future colleagues and employers, reference-writers and professional contacts – people, in other words, with whom there is an implicit quid pro quo. The label “non-profit” masks all kind of skimming and cut-taking: all it means is that the organization has no fiduciary responsibility to make money for its shareholders; it does not mean that the sector affords no opportunities for professionals to enrich themselves. A different racial justice organization, INICTE!, has even published a book-length study outlining these warped incentives and best practices: not only are non-profit workers wary of producing reports and making comment that could jeopardize colleagues’ jobs, but over the course of a career, they operate on both sides of the grant-awarding ledger, allowing for vast networks of reciprocal favor . And this is before we even get started on the porous border non-profit professionals maintain between themselves and local governments, corporate HR departments, and private diversity-sector consultancies – all of which offer opportunities for the most shamelessly careerist charity professionals to make a lucrative “horizontal” move.
That most professionalized charity is, at its core, self-dealing and self-perpetuating, is not a new insight. Oscar Wilde made the point back in 1891, when in The Soul of Man Under Socialism he denounced those who “set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see in poverty but their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.” It’s only natural, given that charity professionals earn a living from the palliation of social problems, that they should be wary about being too effective at solving them. The great Progressive-Era (1896-1916) journalist Lincoln Steffens understood the attitude full well, when he reminisced about the exclamation of a rich woman he once interviewed in New York: “Socialism! But wouldn’t it do away with charity? And what would we do without charities? I love my work for the poor more than anything else I can do.”
What is more, the US has a rich tradition of neutering domestic political movements in precisely this way. Historians like Joan Roelofs, for instance, have charted the way the American Civil Rights struggle was professionalized – or, to borrow a term from the writer Arundhati Roy, “NGO-ized” – via the drafting of notable activists and agitators into non-profit roles. In contrast to grassroots political movements, which draw on individual donations, these entities have traditionally derived their funding from two main sources, the government and billionaire-owned philanthropic foundations – neither of which, to put it mildly, are particularly radical forces for change. By 2001, the leaders of the NAACP – many of them former civil rights firebrands – were content to spend a good chunk of their annual Image Awards fawning over Bill Clinton, whose presidency had seen a huge expansion in non-profit sector funding by government. A decade of mass black incarceration and the publicity-stunt execution of a mentally disabled black inmate, it seemed, were long-forgotten. It doesn’t take any great insight to discern the parallels with BLM today.
It’s the economics, stupid. If a charity is run by a class of professionals whose continued employment depends on the funding of a few powerful institutions and individuals, then it’s only natural that it will refrain from challenging them. This problem, ultimately, is one of professional incentives. And in the case of BLM, there is another wrinkle of difficulty. Alongside the government and foundations, one of the major sources of funding for the cause of racial redress in 2020 was corporate donations, especially from PR-hungry tech firms. And sure enough, BLM supporters on social media had no qualms about encouraging corporate support, exhorting them to “release a statement,” if not actually “open their purse.”
Because of this, the discourse of these activists works in conveniently inconsistent ways. When Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, earmarked $100 million to promoting racial equality, not one of the recipients thought to mention the Congolese families suing the company for the deaths of child laborers in its precious cobalt mines; when Amazon pledged $10 million to “the fight against systemic racism,” none of the beneficiaries made any reference to the company’s smear campaigns against black union organizers, or even the racist face-recognition technology that it had been selling to US police for years.
Indeed, it’s unsurprising that charity professionals maintain these strategic silences: many of them are actually on the private sector payroll, moonlighting as what INCITE! refers to as the “multiracial group of professionals who work as diversity or multicultural trainers, consultants, advisors, and educators” that majority-white corporations hire in to lend themselves a patina of racial sensitivity. One of the most prominent of these figures, Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestselling White Fragility, made headlines last year for raking in $728,000 for speaking engagements alone. With so much money at stake, it’s no wonder that a truly anti-corporate non-profit sector seems like a thing of the past.
There is a real tragedy here, one of thwarted good intentions. Many of the non-profit sector’s apparatchiks really do believe they are doing the right thing – indeed, they have chosen this career path because of deeply held, authentic beliefs about equity and justice. Their skimming, cut-taking and structurally mandated ineffectuality takes the form not of outright fraud, but of responding to professional incentives in what seems like the proper, socially sanctioned way. Want to spend $300,000 on a private consultant? Go right ahead. And why not use my baby-daddy’s firm, since, after all, we know he’s trustworthy?
Some of the most moving moments in Campbell’s original article came from local organizers, many of whom have yet to see a dollar of the estimated $10 billion in donations that BLM’s central leadership secured. In 2021, two mothers of young black men murdered by police, Lisa Simpson and Samaria Rice, released a statement calling out BLMGNF for profiteering off their suffering. “We don’t want or need y’all parading in the streets accumulating donations, platforms, movie deals, etc. off the death of our loved ones, while the families and communities are left clueless and broken,” they wrote. Another local organizer, Tory Johnson, was more succinct: “They got rich off my back.”
“They got rich off my back.”
Nice white liberals should bear such testimony in mind before covering for the non-profit sector. Antiracist window dressing is going to be standard for every cynical corporation, every parasitic NGO, every attempt to extend the reach of the professional managerial class, for years to come. It should be mistrusted, even as the desirability of its core values is asserted. There have been times in American history when non-profit activity has been treated with due suspicion (like in 1910, when Congress denied the Rockefeller Foundation a federal charter over its founder’s monopolistic business practices and hostility to labour unions). If we really want to hammer the non-profit sector into something resembling moral rectitude, then reviving this kind of regulatory scrutiny would be a good place to start.
The other way of altering the sector’s culture is by changing its composition. Until as late as the 1970s, US non-profits were funded mainly by ordinary people, and didn’t feel the need to spend so much time propitiating government officials and corporate sponsors. Such changes, of course wouldn’t do much to avoid individual corruption of the kind displayed by Violence in Boston; but it would interrupt the cycle of corporate kowtowing and tit-for-tat grant awarding that so dominates the sector. In other words, the tangle of skewed professional incentives that designates Damon Turner’s clothing company worthy of funding and Tory Johnson’s grassroots counterprotests unworthy might just begin to unravel.
None of these prescriptions is impossible. Such approaches and attitudes could still be rediscovered by those interested in racial justice. But if we don’t learn these lessons soon, we will become the victims of our own good intentions, and the moment, that in 2020 looked so epoch-making, will be lost.