Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

According to projections by the Census Bureau, the United States will become a “majority-minority” country by 2045, meaning that the proportion of non-Hispanic whites will dip below 50 percent, and no racial or ethnic group will be a numerical majority. What will this racial diversification mean for the future of American civil society?

Answering this question will require, at least in part, a deeper examination of racial dynamics in California. After all, California has experienced the kind of racial demographic shift over the last 40 years that the rest of the United States will experience over the next 40, with migration from Asia and Latin America fueling much of that change. And the kinds of political trends we are seeing in many parts of the country today—a sharp rise in racial anxiety, white nationalism, and movements to restore the nation to its halcyon past—are the same trends California experienced in waves from the 1970s onwards, peaking in the 1990s with the state’s racially divisive ballot propositions (Prop 187 targeting undocumented immigrants in 1994, Prop 209 banning affirmative action in 1996, and Prop 227 undermining bilingual education programs in 1998). Since the state achieved majority-minority status in 2000, it has lived in relative racial harmony, but it still faces deep inequalities with troubling implications for a vibrant civil society.

We can derive three important lessons from California’s experiences with civil society in the context of racial diversification. First, demographic change need not lead inevitably to social exclusion and racially divisive politics—actions by political leaders and social movement actors can push toward mutual understanding and racial healing. Next, innovative philanthropy needs to bridge the divisions between those who promote civic empowerment and those who promote social entrepreneurship—each is incomplete without the other. Finally, the philanthropic community needs to significantly update its understanding of philanthropists of color, and dramatically increase its outreach to them. These interventions are important to ensuring a strong and vibrant civil society in the United States under conditions of significant racial diversification.

Demography as destiny?

It is tempting to view the rise and fall of exclusionary politics and social division in California as purely a function of demographic change. In the early stages of racial diversification, racial minorities lack political power, but their growing numbers fuel anxiety among whites, who fear displacement and turn to political, legal, and social means to preserve their power. This was the case in California from the 1970s through the 1990s. In later stages of racial diversification, such as when California achieved majority-minority status in 2000, communities of color are able to defend themselves against exclusionary policies and, over time, can gain sufficient strength to push for more racially inclusive and equitable social policies.

According to this argument, the United States is in the early phases of the first stage of racial diversification, when communities of color are growing rapidly in their share of the US population, but not yet numerous enough to be politically powerful. This means we will likely see even more social division and exclusionary politics in the decades ahead, with racially inclusive politics and racially equitable policies occurring only after the country reaches “majority-minority” status in 2045.

This is an unnecessarily pessimistic view. It could not have predicted Barack Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012, nor the kind of racially inclusive moves that George W. Bush made in 2001 and 2006 as he pushed for comprehensive immigration reform. It is also unreflective of California’s own story, which is not simply about demographic changes driving the state’s political life and civil society. The calculations and miscalculations of political leaders have mattered along the way, and so have changes in philanthropy and social movement strategy, as Manuel Pastor skillfully argues in his recent book State of Resistance.

The argument of “demography as destiny” is thus not only unnecessarily pessimistic, but also theoretically flawed. It ignores the role of political leaders, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropic organizations that promote intergroup contact and encourage racial healing. Struggles over equity and inclusion occur in the realm of social movement activity and political leadership, and civic engagement plays a vital role—both in strengthening minority communities, and in building bridges of common understanding and common cause between majority and minority communities.

Linking civic engagement and social entrepreneurship

California’s foundations have played a tremendous role in promoting civic engagement and the empowerment of low-income communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color. For example, strategic and coordinated efforts by statewide funders on immigrant rights over the past decades have built up regional networks of immigrant advocacy organizations and produced a broad base of support for immigration policy reform at the statewide level. Building on these successes, some of the same foundations formed California Civic Participation Funders—a statewide funder collaborative on civic engagement in 2010 that expanded even further by 2012—to incorporate both 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 funders. The collaborative has played a significant role in increasing the scale of civic engagement investments. According to the Foundation Center, 501(c)3 funders have invested about $300 million on civic engagement in California from 2011 to 2018, compared to a little more than $20 million in Texas during the same period.

Operating in parallel, California has also seen a surge of funding in social entrepreneurship and social enterprise, particularly with the rise of Silicon Valley foundations such as the Omidyar Network (founded in 2004), Emerson Collective (2004), Chan Zuckerberg (2015), and Schmidt Futures (2015). Many of these Silicon Valley foundations have incorporated as limited liability corporations (LLCs) rather than as 501(c)3s, and have a stronger interest than more-established foundations in social enterprise and the flexibility to make for-profit investments that advance the social good.

These two large streams of funding—social enterprise and civic engagement—have rarely intersected, to the detriment of each. Some might argue that the funding opportunities for civic engagement and social enterprise are so vast in California that the two streams need not intersect. However, the argument for greater intersection and creative collaboration between these two funding streams is based not simply on the availability of funding, but rather on the limited impact each funding stream has when it operates in isolation of the other.

For example, civic engagement funders have paid scant attention to how civic engagement can become more sustainable, enabling grassroots organizations to adopt suitable models of social enterprise that diversify their revenue streams. Social enterprise funders, by contrast, have focused on the viability and growth potential of new investments, but have paid little attention to whether these efforts meaningfully engage the populations they are meant to serve, or whether their efforts have any bearing on strengthening the voices of communities of color. Combining these concerns about community empowerment and social innovation can reap multiple rewards, and pilot programs such as our SEED Lab, in collaboration with Caravanserai Project and Independent Sector, can help point the way forward.

Making critical investments in philanthropists of color

The strength of civil society in a majority-minority America will also depend on promoting the growth of philanthropists of color. There have been a few national efforts to analyze, strengthen, and support philanthropy among communities of color, including by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Community Investment Network, and The Vaid Group. And California certainly has seen the growth of important organizations such as the Latino Community Foundation and the Asian Pacific Fund.

At the same time, these developments represent only a sliver of what is possible and necessary, given the significant and growing philanthropic capacity of communities of color. This is particularly true for Asian Americans, who are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, and are rapidly filling the ranks of the upper-middle class in California and elsewhere. At the same time, their civic engagement, volunteerism, and charitable activity lags significantly behind others, setting up an unsustainable racial future with respect to philanthropic activity.

California is already feeling the consequences of failing to meaningfully engage with Asian American and Latino philanthropy. Locally serving nonprofits—including arts and cultural organizations, and those serving the homeless and disabled—are struggling to gain institutional strength and address the growing needs of their communities.

Ensuring a strong and vibrant civil society in a majority-minority California, and in a rapidly diversifying United States, will thus require us to view communities of color not only as important targets of investment, but also as important sources of community intelligence and asset growth. Greater diversity in philanthropy will not naturally occur as a simple consequence of “demography as destiny.” Just as in the case of increasing civic engagement among communities of color, increasing philanthropy among communities of color will require intentional effort, coordination, and long-term investments by the philanthropic sector.