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Is It Really Racism?

By Billy Mitchell


A few years ago I approached some of the major foundations and enquired as to why they did not fund black programs. The program I began in 2001 had been serving hundreds of youngsters each year, providing free after school music instruction. But each year our program was passed over by many of the major foundations, often without the courtesy of a response.  My inquiry received various responses, from indignation, hostility to direct challenges. Most of these foundations believed that they were living up to their commitment to serve the community, equitably. One problem is that many foundations are unable to distinguish between a black program, one founded by, administered by and serving the black and brown community, from a white organization that operates in a black community. Our program has received very generous support from several major foundations, as well as individuals. However, to the vast majority of foundations we remain invisible.I would not infer that these organizations have formal racists policies, but the unspoken attitude that I believe pervades the philanthropic landscape has the same negative effect on communities of color, the same as segregation, the same as Jim Crow. I believe that many foundations believe that supporting the inner-city is a waste of resources, that inner-city programs will not yield the results expected, that these programs are historically mismanaged, or that inner-city programs can effectively operate with less resources than their white counterparts. Whatever the assumptions are, whatever the experiences have been, the effect that these attitudes have on “programs of color” are just as devastating as if written into law. When funders responded by actually coming to Watts to see the work that is being done, there is usually a change of heart. But too many foundations never quite “have time” to make that site visit and experience reality.

But I think the greater problem is a direct result of how we relate to each other as Black people. A call for introspection is usually met with resistance because it is easier to blame the system than to deal with the issues and cultural deficits that the black community should be responsible to fix. I totally agree with Louis Farrakhan when he says, “the black community is out of excuses.”

For almost 20 years our programs have provided free music instruction to hundreds of black and latino youngsters, preparing them for the countless opportunities that are available. Tragically, we have received very little support from the many black organizations that voice concern about the conditions in the black community. Only a few black foundations such as the Golden State Minority Foundation, Broadway Federal Bank, and the Dakar Foundation (the late John Singleton’s foundation) have supported our efforts to increase opportunities for black youngsters. Every organization and individual contribution we have received is listed on our website. ( When we started the SAPPA program I thought that black support was a given. I was wrong! Rarely getting a return call from black foundations, programs such as ours are seemingly dismissed by the very ones we should be able to depend on. The disregard that is exhibited toward the many struggling grassroots programs contributes to the growing apathy towards arts and education that we see in the inner-city. This would not be an issue if there were an abundance of vibrant music and arts programs in the low-income areas trying to fill the gaps left by an inadequate educational system. But there aren’t any!

When I read that a black person has donated millions of dollars to high profile institutions or colleges, that neither need or appreciate their contributions, it is discouraging and hurtful! Whether its their attempt to ingratiate themselves with the white community or following the advice of agents and managers that direct money of successful athletes and entertainers away from the black community, the result is the same. I doubt if Dr.Dre would be very welcome on the USC campus without his multi-million donation. At the same time, our program, that serves youngsters in the Compton community received zero!  Based on the history of our struggle in this country, I would expect that real effort would be made to identify groups and individuals that are doing the “real work” to help our young people thrive. We are the organizations that need and deserve your support!

Billy Mitchell is founder and director of SAPPA and Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory. 2020 recipient of the Jazz Journalist Association, Jazz Hero Award and the California Jazz Foundation 2020 Nica Award. His book “The Gigging Musician” has been used as a reference in college curriculums.          



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