MLK, nonprofit and philanthropy, and new ways white moderation shows up

[Image description: An adult and a child in front of an MLK quote that’s etched into a wall. The quote reads “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional, our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” Image by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash]

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and this year it will probably be even more surreal than usual. Normally, we see the plethora of politicians and people who would have opposed everything MLK stood for, now quoting and praising him. This year, be on the lookout for MLK quotes from people and organizations who have remained silent on Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, including the massacre of over 10,000 Palestinian children. If this is you, lean on MLK’s courage and use this day to break your silence.

The rest of us, however, are also not off the hook. I see the same quotes being used, the ones that are positive and hopeful, that won’t cause any offense. Those words are important, but don’t forget all the other things Dr. King said that we often conveniently ignore, including “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism”

And “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?”

The quote I often think about is the one on white moderation. He warned that the biggest threats to justice are not the overt racists who wear hood and burn crosses, but the “white moderate,” the seemingly nice people who profess to have the same goals, but who always prioritize civility, respectability, and a type of “peace” that doesn’t call for justice.

Our sector—nonprofit and philanthropy—needs to constantly reflect on this concept of white moderation because we are arguably the single most salient embodiment of it. Many of us still equivocate around issues like police violence. Our fundraising and philanthropic practices allow for the conscience-laundering of systemic injustice, including horrendous wealth hoarding. Many funders and nonprofit leaders actively work against addressing the root causes of inequity, like the foundations prohibiting their grantees from engaging in advocacy work. And so on. Here are 21 signs you and your org may be the white moderate.

However, it’s been over 60 years since Dr. King wrote those words about white moderates in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Things evolve, including how white moderation manifests. Sure, many things that MLK listed as examples of white moderation—calling for unity and civility, prioritizing pragmatism, asking people to wait until the “right time,” etc.—are still very much present.

But I’ve been seeing other ways white moderation is showing up in our sector and our world. I’m going to reflect on three of those ways below (while also working on . Please keep in mind that these concepts are not in themselves bad; most or all are good. It’s only when they are used as excuses to not take other actions that would advance justice, or they are weaponized against those who are taking those actions, that they become a tool of white moderation.

Pluralism and diversity of perspectives. Over the past few years, we’ve been seeing an increase in the usage of the term pluralism. Pluralism speaks to the importance of diversity in a functioning society, and in fact, it seems more and more people are using “pluralism” as a replacement word for diversity. Pluralism, however, includes more abstract concepts, such as ideas and principles and seems to be more tolerant of philosophies and perspectives that are atrocious and counter to justice.

A few months ago, I wrote this article (“Philanthropy’s equivalent of All Lives Matter”) in response to this letter written by several leaders in philanthropy that calls for the protection of “philanthropic pluralism,” or the idea that all approaches to philanthropy are intrinsically good, that funders and donors who support legislation that are anti-trans, anti-immigrants, pro-book banning, that support voter suppression and fascism, etc. are just as valid and good for society and the funders and donors who are working to protect voting rights, abortion rights, etc.

While it is important that we do consider multiple viewpoints, we need to be on the lookout in our sector that we’re not using “pluralism” and “diversity of perspectives” and “marketplace of ideas” etc., as an excuse to platform truly heinous philosophies and practices. At best, it distracts us from engaging in meaningful work and wastes our time and energy in intellectual debates; at worst, it allows these damaging ideas to build momentum and worsen the injustice we’re trying to address. That’s white moderation.

Complexity and nuance: One of the most common criticisms radical activists receive is “you just don’t see the nuance.” I bet if MLK were here today, a bunch of people would roll their eyes at his words and dismiss him as not grasping “nuance.” Oh, you say capitalism and militarism and racism are bad? That’s so absolutist and one-dimensional! Where’s the nuance?!

Along with nuance is “complexity.” In discussing the genocide of Gaza, the word that comes up so often is “complex.” Even among some of the liberals I know. “This situation is so complex. It’s so complicated. That’s why I’m staying out of it.” Sure, geopolitics and people’s thoughts and feelings and responses can be complex, but injustice and oppression themselves are often not complicated at all. Bombing refugee camps is wrong. Murdering children is wrong. Cutting off electricity to hospitals is wrong. There is nothing complex there. There is no situation where discussing the ethics of murdering children requires a “nuanced approach.” It’s wrong. The end.

This applies to other crucial things we’re tackling. One time I got into a heated but friendly argument with a colleague about the need for environmental funders to all increase their payout rates so they can address climate change immediately before it’s irreversible. “It’s complicated,” my colleague responded, “there will be environmental issues in the future, so we need to save up; we can’t just spend all of our endowments now.” Decades of being mired in “complexity” instead of taking action has led us to where we are today with climate change and myriad other societal issues.

Our sector loves to engage in endless intellectualizing, oftentimes confusing ourselves in the process, or becoming so overwhelmed that we remain complacent and neutral, which are signs of being the white moderate Dr. King warned about. We need to do a better job getting to the essentials of injustice and our role in addressing it. Otherwise we could “nuance” and “it’s complicated” ourselves into white moderation, ineffectiveness, and irrelevance. 

Belonging and community: I appreciate the work around belonging, as championed by visionary leader john a. powell. As written on the Othering and Belonging Institute website, “The concept of belonging describes more than a feeling of inclusion or welcome. Its full power is as a strategic framework for addressing ongoing structural and systemic othering, made visible, for example, in the wide disparities in outcomes found across a variety of sectors and identity groups.”

The challenge, however, is that many people in the sector seem to be focused primarily on the first part, the feeling of inclusion and welcome, and not the second. I was at a meeting on belonging a while ago, and while it was heartening to learn about the community potlucks and other ways people welcomed and connected with their neighbors who didn’t speak English, or who were elderly and isolated, etc., there was a noticeable absence of discussion about voting rights, political and economic power, etc. But how does someone “belong” if they are being suppressed from voting? How do people belong when they have no reproductive freedom or they exist in poverty?

Meanwhile, as often as we talk about the importance of community in this line of work, people’s views of community can be very narrow, to the point where community only extends to people in one’s proximity geographically or in terms of ethnic or other identities. I’ve been seeing this a lot over the past few weeks. A criticism leveraged against those of us speaking up against Israel’s war crimes and genocide against Palestinians is “Why are you weighing in on some war that’s thousands of miles away and have nothing to do with you?” 

Using inclusive concepts like “community” and “belonging” to exclude people in other countries or who don’t look like you, or to avoid deeper analyses of systemic injustice, that’s white moderation.

I am sure there are plenty of other ways that white moderation manifests.

Overall, Dr. King’s vision and words remain as relevant as ever, perhaps even more so. But just as injustice changes and evolves, so too do the white moderate responses to it. Our sector, whose overarching mission is to create a just and equitable world, must be vigilant to ensure we do not fall for the trappings of white moderation, in whatever form it takes.

Please continue calling your elected officials and taking other actions to demand a permanent ceasefire and a stop to the genocide of Palestinians.