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Reuters/Toru Hanai
MORE THAN RIBBONS

Here’s why it’s easier to raise money to fight disease than to fight racism

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld
By Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

Co-Director, The Building Movement Project

As summer 2015 begins, we as a nation are again confronted with the horrors of racialized violence. The  outrage of nine murders in a Charleston, S. Carolina church remind us of the lessons not yet learned from last summer’s death of Michael Brown, shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. by officer Darren Wilson.

This past week, as stories about the hate crime killings after a Bible study class at Emanuel AME Church made headlines, so did Anthem’s $54-billion bid for rival Cigna in a deal that could reshape the health insurance industry.

Eerily parallel is the pairing of media interest last summer of the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) trending in  headline news the same week as the Michael Brown killing. The Ice Bucket Challenge brought in $220 million globally to fight the disease ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

But what money has been raised to fight racism? Just pennies in comparison.

When it comes to raising money, race seems to be a determining factor in the chances that crowdfunding efforts will work.

Reflecting on the events from last summer can perhaps shape how we contextualize the narrative of violence this past week. Understanding the impact of all these stories on our national consciousness, and viewing the contrasting trajectories from last summer, the starkly divided economic realities of race in America emerge.

ALS is a disease affecting the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. As the disease progresses, people lose the ability to control their muscles, leading to paralysis and death.

Albert Einstein called racism America’s “worst disease,” and the science of implicit bias is showing that the analogy between racism and a disease of the brain may not be much of a stretch after all.

In the case of ALS, the mode of action was to make a donation to support research for a cure, and to post a video of yourself dumping a bucket full of ice and water on your head. The ALS Association reported on their website the funding windfall was unprecedented and a surprise for charity watchers.

In response to Ferguson over the past year, as well as the death of Eric Garner and other cases, many people of all races took to the streets to protest under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” Yes, there were some donations made as well, but there was a stark racialized disparity in the grassroots fundraising that occurred.

According to early reports, online fundraising for Officer Darren Wilson quickly surpassed the money raised for the slain teenager’s family. Three months after the shooting, Wilson had a reported “$1 million war chest” assembled from various donation funds that were also flooded with  racist comments accompanying many of the donations.

By comparison, Black Lives Matter Awareness (BLMA) was formed in partnership with the #blacklivesmatter movement as a response to recent events of police brutality towards black people across the country. BLMA created awareness ribbons, wristbands and t-shirts that anyone can purchase to both show support and provide funding to the black lives matter struggle. The problem is that since BLMA launched their website and online store in January, they’ve only raised $15,000 for the movement.

The wealth gap means that crumbs donated by whites will quickly outpace giving by blacks.

Wirter Mangrum, who helped launch the awareness campaign and website, was still hopeful about the potential to increase sales. Even though Mangrum noted that “Most people are just surviving, so their cause is often their own family,” he pointed to a sales boost from people buying bulk packages of the ribbons to wear at commencement ceremonies.

But it’s still clear that online fundraising works differently when the wristband says Black Lives Matter, as opposed to the name of the white officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. In fact, when it comes to raising money, race seems to be a determining factor in the chances that crowdfunding efforts will work.

One simple reason is that white people have more money to donate than blacks. According to the Pew Research Center, the typical American household had a net worth of roughly $80,000 in both 2010 and in 2013. But for black households, median wealth fell 33.7 percent during that same period to only $11,000. Pew also found that the wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013.

There is a long tradition of charitable giving in the black community, especially to black churches. A 2012 report by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that black people give very generously to causes—with black donors giving away 25% more of their income than white donors. But it should be noted that the wealth gap still has an impact here because even if a black household donates a bigger portion of their wealth, a quarter of a small cookie is still a lot less than a slice of a 3-layer cake.

The wealth gap means that crumbs donated by whites will quickly outpace giving by blacks in total funding impact. That’s why we can’t think about raising the funding needed to address racism as the responsibility of black donors only.

Part of what was so great about the ice bucket challenge was that all kinds of people who had never been touched by ALS, still made donations. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement has touched and involved all kinds of people—black, white, gay, straight, immigrant and US-born. It’s not surprising that many people have showed their support by marching, rather than buying wristbands and ribbons, but the racial wealth gap doesn’t have to doom the fundraising prospects of the Black Lives Matter movement. But white allies need to push their friends and family to spend their money on fighting racism at the same rate they spend it to combat disease.

There are no shortage of resources and websites out there for people trying to figure out how to help the movement grow. Hundreds of organizations doing important work to end racialized violence are listed in Resource Generation’s interactive map. And a recent report from the Discount Foundation includes an appendix of more than 50 groups. Anyone can spend $12 on an awareness ribbon and wristband.

Violence that is racially motivated claims American lives every year, as do diseases like ALS, cancer and more. It is time that we spend our resources on fighting racism to cure it—or at least curb its death toll—in our lifetimes.

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