Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Moral of the Caine Mutiny: California Diversity Bill Withdrawn

According to an article in yesterday's Sacramento Bee, a California legislator has withdrawn a bill (A.B. 624) that would have imposed diversity requirements on private foundation governance and grant-making procedures in California. 

Faced with legislation that would require them to disclose their ethnic [gender and sexual preference] composition and detail grants awarded to minority organizations, 10 of California's largest foundations agreed Monday to a multimillion-dollar, multiyear investment in minority communities.  In return, Assemblyman Joe Coto, D-San Jose, dropped a bill that opponents said was an effort to impose racial diversity on charities and threatened to drive donors out of California.

It looked as though the bill had the votes despite being universally opposed by respectable foundations and prominent nonprofit stakeholders.  For previous coverage see here and here and here.  In the meantime, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that many nonprofits continue to practice tokenism (whether by benign neglect or otherwise) when it comes to minority representation on nonprofit boards:

Randell McShepard, vice president of public affairs at RPM International, found himself in high demand last year as 22 nonprofit organizations asked him to serve on their board of directors. McShepard has a high-profile position at his company and much experi ence serving on nonprofit boards, includ ing the United Way of Greater Cleveland and Business Vol unteers Unlim ited, an organization that links businesses and nonprofits and trains nonprofit boards. But McShepard, who is black, said the 22 invitations really underscore how nonprofits are not digging deep enough to tap into the wealth of talented minority professionals in the community.  In the end, when the nonprofits repeatedly go to McShepard and a select group of other minority candidates for their boards, some of them come up empty-handed. "I am the poster child for that," McShepard said of being repeatedly asked to join nonprofit boards. "There is no honor in that for me. It saddened me to see so many organizations so limited to me that they can't see the many talented people who are out there."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer story is familiar to those of us who are relatively small, average or even slightly above average potatoes; once majority groups or organizations percieve a willingness to serve by one or two minority individuals perceived as "exceptional" (i.e., clean, articulate and "talks like us" -- safe, in other words), they continue to ask that same person over and over again to serve in multiple capacities.  "Exceptional" by the way is often just normal or slightly above average with darker pigment.  On the other hand, if the position to be filled is perceived as really significant, even truely exceptional people with a darker pigment are often perceived, for one reason or another, as insufficient for the particular role.     But I digress.  The few who are designated as "exceptional" (i.e., the average, or even slightly above average educated minority) can't be everywhere at once and that fact becomes an excuse for boards (law schools, and law firms, too, for that matter) who claim, "we can't find qualified minority applicants."  Only the rarely exceptional, the designated "super-minority" will do, though the average and sometimes below average non-minority will do nicely as well, thank you.

In the midst of all this, nonprofit boards still tend to be insular and exclusionary by race in 2008:

Last year the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group, released a survey that found the nation's nonprofit boards are overwhelmingly white and that just over half are entirely white. The survey of more than 5,000 public charities across the country found that 86 percent of nonprofit board members are white, 7 percent are black and 3.5 percent are Hispanic. Nonprofit boards wield enormous power in the communities they serve, dealing with issues ranging from education and health to homelessness, hunger and the arts. And the boards need to be diverse to guide them effectively because in many cases the stakeholders that the organizations serve represent diverse races, ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, said Elizabeth Hosler Voudouris, executive vice president of Business Volunteers Unlimited.

"So they stabbed it with their steely knives."  The death of the admittedly flawed diversity bill in California is cause for relief, but somehow it reminds me of that last scene in The Caine Mutiny, the movie version.  The scene where the anglo-saxon defendant and his buddies raise their champagne glasses to celebrate the flawed skipper's downfall.  The Jewish defense attorney who brilliantly saved their skins is having no part of it though.  He reminds them, even as they celebrate the downfall of someone whose psychosis made him a flawed weapon in the fight against violent Nazi anti-semitism, that the flawed antagonist was nevertheless fighting against an undeniable injustice while everyone else was content to congratulate themselves for their uncontroversial going along to get along.  We might also celebrate the death of a flawed weapon -- the California bill -- in the fight against racism; we ought to recognize at the same time that the statistics suggest racism (exclusion, benign neglect, whatever you want to call it) exists and persists even in the world of do-gooders.  Let's not celebrate too loudly.

dkj

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Comments

As someone who participated in the opposition to 624 your coverage is biased. The author of the bill could not establish a reasonable rationale on his measure. He argued that the major California foundations were not attentive to diversity - yet several put forth strong records of grants and programs they had funded. He argued that foundations had not paid attention to some regions in the state and again they showed the "data" was false.

Ultimately, the sponsors of the bill had a narrow version of reality that the legislature did not accept. The bill did cause some more discussion and a willingness by the foundation community to provide some better voluntary reporting. Ultimately, what was most troubling about this was not the need for more clarity but whether a statutory mandate was the best way to get the things done. If the sponsors come back again with a measure that will increase costs, as 624 did, the coalition will continue to oppose the measure. But that does not mean as you seem to imply that the philanthropic community is racist or in any way foot dragging on serving the needs of Californians.

Posted by: drtaxsacto | Jun 25, 2008 8:19:43 AM

Of course the report is biased. I have my biases. Are you not biased? Is there anyone in this world who is not biased? Step forward now. That is such an old, tired, beside-the-point assertion that one has to work hard to resist the thought that the speaker is intentionally avoiding the real issue. Despite my bias, the report (1) acknowledged that the bill was flawed -- as has a prior post that I wrote, (2) set forth statistics showing the dearth of minority representation on tax subsidized boards and the overuse of "super minorities", (3) provided a fairly common anecdote about tokenism, (4) repeated that the bill was flawed, and (5) allowed for the possibility that the status quo might be described as something other than intentional racism benign neglect or in your words "foot dragging", though the result is identical to what it would be if intentional racism were being practiced.

You ignored all of that.

Posted by: Darryll Jones | Jun 25, 2008 10:13:11 AM

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