How Madison hit the proverbial wall in the race to equity

Since the first installment of Minority Biz Report, some readers have asked me what inspired me to create this blog. One of the motivating forces was my dissatisfaction with our local media’s coverage of the economic state of affairs within Madison’s black communities.

Generally, our media’s treatment of the topic is woefully one-dimensional and lacking in ideological diversity. Instead of lamenting in private, I created this blog so that I could constructively contribute to public thought and discourse on Madison’s race to equity. For the sake of keeping with the runner’s analogy that drives the Race to Equity brand, I can say that Madison has hit the wall and desperately needs to catch a second wind.

Capitalizing (on) the Race to Equity Report

When the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families published its Race to Equity Report, it created an ideal opportunity to encourage inclusive dialogue about how every government agency, person, and business could contribute to racial equity. Likewise, our local media have a valuable role to play with respect to the public’s knowledge of racial inequities.

However, we are reaching a tipping point in which local media consign “leadership” on racial inequities exclusively to an elite cohort of nonprofit executives. If our media fail to provide a fair and balanced platform in which other stakeholders (including working families, small businesses, and young professionals) can demonstrate leadership, then we are more likely to create a nonprofit industrial complex, instead of maximizing net improvements in racial equity.

Media’s social responsibility to the public

For the majority of people who have not personally experienced being black and/or under-resourced, local media are the main source of information about the nature and scope of the economic crisis within Madison’s black communities. Because of local media’s critical role in disseminating valuable information to the public, our news platforms should investigate and report news with a view toward continually adding context, depth, and clarity to a story.

However, local media tend to myopically focus on an exclusive cohort of nonprofit executives who presumably share the same relatively narrow set of ideological views and financial interests while monopolizing public discourse on racial inequities. Consequently, the general public is deprived of a global understanding of economic underdevelopment within Madison’s black communities.

The trouble with nonprofit economics

To be fair, all these nonprofit leaders are simply doing their jobs — by pipelining press coverage and financial resources toward their particular programs. After all, every nonprofit executive has a fiduciary duty to increase the financial endowments of their employers. In addition, enhancing the impact of nonprofit service delivery is a significant component of Madison’s short-term response to racial inequities.

Nevertheless, stakeholders in Madison’s race to equity would be remiss to deny that financial investment in nonprofit programs (and administration) will necessarily reach a point of diminishing returns — if it hasn’t already. It should not be taboo to critique nonprofit economics; moreover, conversations about how we strategically invest public and private resources should not be limited to an exclusive group of individuals or institutions. That’s just not the Madison way. The Madison brand is about pluralism, facilitating open dialogue, and presenting competing ideas for the betterment of Madison as a whole. The stakes are too high not to have all hands on deck in the design and implementation of solutions to Madison’s racial inequities.

Seeing the big picture

The long-term solution for Madison’s racial inequities is to increase access to gainful employment and economic advancement opportunities. These desired outcomes are best facilitated by private-sector development and restructuring, such that black Madisonians (and other marginalized groups) enjoy equal access to good jobs. In this respect, the utility of nonprofit programs has a foreseeable ceiling, in that they can only provide for the basic needs and fundamental skills development of their program participants; the nonprofit sector is not adequately equipped to independently address the root cause of racial inequities in Madison.



The root cause of our racial inequities is not racism per se. It is the fact that, in Madison, there is a high correlation between race and social capital, and black Madisonians disproportionately experience difficulties in the cultivation of social capital, which can be converted into good jobs and other economic opportunities. While nonprofit programs can help individuals acquire relevant job skills, in reality minimum (or even extraordinary) skills can only assist an individual in persisting within a job … if the individual actually gets the job. The truth of the matter is that jobs are neither won nor lost based upon skills; the applicant who holds the most social capital among the in-group that influences and/or makes the hiring decision is the individual who gets the job.

Generally, nonprofit programs can’t deliver this form of employment-related social capital because nonprofits themselves do not have the social capital to influence hiring decisions among private-sector employers.

Trekking onward, with caution

Racial inequities negatively impact the overall quality of life in Madison. Accordingly, we all share a stake in designing and implementing solutions to this communitywide problem. Necessarily, the race to equity must be a multigenerational, multidisciplinary, multi-sector effort to degrade the root causes of racial inequities — barriers to attaining social capital. Consequently, the burden of achieving racial equity cannot be the exclusive purview of a handful of nonprofits that are incapable of impacting employment decisions within the private sector.

The importance of the Race to Equity Report cannot be overstated. The report succeeded in delivering empirical evidence — to a white-collar audience — that supports the longstanding narratives of black communities across Madison and Dane County. The recurring theme of those narratives is that, if you are black, you are less likely to experience all the things that make Madison one of the best places to live in America.

Yet despite the wealth of knowledge contained within the report, a critical mass of local celebrities and influential institutions seems committed to reducing the report to self-serving academic fodder. Meanwhile, the real-life subjects of the report are left waiting for meaningful action and genuine leadership.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.