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How Philanthropy Can Help Combat Extremism and White Supremacy

August 10, 2022

While philanthropy has increasingly recognized the systemic injustices baked into society in the United States and beyond, funding to specifically combat white supremacist violence and ideology remains low. To explore this issue, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) held a closed-door discussion with Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), moderated by RPA  Senior Vice President Renee Karibi-Whyte. Excerpts from that conversation are below.

In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of white supremacist violence and hate crimes in the United States. Can you place that into context?

Jonathan Greenblatt, Anti-Defamation League: What we’ve seen is atomization of white supremacist groups, which has created possibilities for self-radicalization. When it comes to right-wing extremism, in addition to the white supremacist strain, you also have an armed militia strain. Conspiracy theorism is another amplifying factor coursing through these movements, from QAnon to anti-vaxxers. These conspiracy theories are like gateway drugs to violent extremism and can radicalize even more people.

 Derrick Johnson, NAACP: There is a large segment of the white population that feels maligned. They feel excluded from the broader society and have been unable to move up the socioeconomic ladder. And they are susceptible to the conspiracy theory that their economic and community condition is the Jewish community’s fault or it’s the Black community’s fault or their jobs are being taken by immigrants from Mexico or Latin America. The conservative movement, particularly the Republican Party, has used the fears of those individuals and peddled a narrative to get them to go vote, and this strategy accelerated after the 2008 election.

Then, in 2016, we began to see interference from a foreign county in our election system using social media platforms. These unregulated social media platforms are a super spreader for hate. As a result, it’s now easier to sow seeds of division, tribalism, and hatred through those platforms. There is no accountability for these platforms because they have regulatory protections, and allow these groups to continue to fester and grow.

Overall, people feel more emboldened to display their extremist white supremacist behavior and domestic terrorism in the public space. And as the Black community, Latino community, and Jewish community, we have to protect ourselves until this nation truly deals with it and holds people accountable.

What do you see as the biggest gaps right now in efforts to thwart this extremism? 

 Johnson: One, we need a true federal response with all of the resources necessary to address the threat of extremism. Two, we need the recognition that extremism and white supremacy are domestic terrorism. We can no longer tap dance around that many acts of extreme violence from within the US are bred in communities of thought centered around extremism or white supremacy.

In the Black experience, it’s very clear. If you don’t hold domestic terrorists accountable, people die. And if we don’t do something soon, we’re going to continue to see an escalation of domestic terrorism in our communities.

 Greenblatt: Beyond government, we need the business community to be engaged. Technology companies have an enormously important role to play. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been super-spreaders of the extremist virus for years. Their algorithms have amplified the kind of content that the networks would never allow on television. There are laws that shield these companies from liability, and that’s got to change. But it’s not just the social media companies. Look, social media companies exist in a value chain. Companies like Visa and MasterCard process payments for them. They have a role to play, too. Finally, civil society needs to engage with this issue—from academia to houses of worship, to nonprofits like the NAACP or ADL.

Philanthropy also has a role to play. This work has been chronically underfunded by philanthropy. Philanthropy can do more to support the incumbents trying to drive systemic change like the NAACP or Urban League or UNIVOS or HRC or ADL or SPLC and others. Philanthropy can also step up to support innovation, and be willing to take on some experiments and risks. We’re now looking at new techniques to fund de-radicalization, to off-ramp people who get radicalized because we’re so worried about the lone-wolf phenomenon. That’s a place where philanthropy can provide risk capital.

Please expand on what you see as the role of philanthropy in combating this extremism.

Greenblatt: Number one, large foundations typically don’t have program officers who deal with extremism. This work, whether it’s fighting hate online or tackling extremists offline, is chronically underfunded by philanthropy. So, I would encourage philanthropy to think about supporting institutions, groups like ours, and others who are in this mix.

Number two involves taking risks and funding some experimental or innovative programs—and realizing you might have to get out of your comfort zone as a donor. You need to be willing to take some risks because philanthropy is the risk capital of society.

Number three, philanthropy can work with organizations like ours to try to deconstruct the value chain of extremism. Rather than just addressing the symptoms, we can also try to get forensic, understand the root causes, and do some interesting work there that hasn’t gotten the attention of organized institutional philanthropy for a long time.

 Johnson: There’s the adage of giving someone a fish vs. teaching them how to fish. Philanthropic individuals and organizations must, as the entities of risk capital, understand the difference between advocacy and service. Service is about giving the fish, and you cannot change systemic problems by creating a soup kitchen. You have to go to the root cause of why a soup kitchen is needed to create a policy to prevent the soup kitchen from ever needing to be in existence. So, with that perspective, it’s more about investing risk capital into advocacy groups that are going to take the type of risks that ultimately impact how our tax dollars are utilized for the greater good of society.

The measurement of any society is based on three beautiful things: how well we care for our elderly, how well we prepare our young people for a productive future, and whether and how we protect the rights of the disadvantaged. That’s where the risk capital needs to go. And that’s the work of NAACP, that’s the work of ADL, that’s the work of so many groups going out there and trying new ways to combat extremism. No, we’re not going to win everything, because as the civil rights song says, “freedom is a constant struggle.” But if we never fight, we will never win.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

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