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Living with COVID one year later: Part II – the pre-existing structural conditions of White Supremacy, the Wealth Gap and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex in Grand Rapids

April 5, 2021

In Part I, we looked at the recent surge in COVID cases in Michigan, by using a WOODTV8 story as an example of how the local news media is failing us when it comes to exploring the reasons behind the rise in COVID cases.

Today, we want to look at some of the pre-existing structural conditions which are contributing to the recent COVID surge, structural conditions that will continue to cause tremendous harm in a post-COVID world, unless we confront and dismantled them. The three pre-existing structural conditions we will address in this post are White Supremacy, the Wealth Gap and the role that the Non-Profit Industrial Complex plays in supporting the racial and economic injustices in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids is an Apartheid City with a White Savior Mentality

Last May, we wrote about the newly created Kent County COVID database that was created by the Health Department. In that post we looked at the Health Department’s data and could easily determining that a disproportionately high number of Black and latinx people were contracting the COVID 19 virus. We determined that this was due to how deeply entrenched White Supremacy is in this city. If one looks at the data from the Health Department today, one could draw the same conclusion.

Let’s be honest. Grand Rapids is a deeply racist city. The data supports this fact, whether we are talking about pre-existing health conditions, poverty, access to education, employment, housing or environmental factors, Black, latinx and indigenous people are disproportionately affected.

We could also talk about how entrenched White Supremacy is in the city through the lens of how the power structure responds. Just within the past few weeks we have heard about how Kent County Commissioners responded to concerns raised by community members over the issue of racism as a public health concern. Then there was the issue of how Grand Rapids City officials responded to how the police are targeting members of Justice for Black Lives. In addition, we could look at the larger response to calls from thousands in the community the Defund the GRPD and how City officials undermined significant public opinion to actually reduce the GRPD’s share of the city budget.

However, there is also the lived experience of Black and latinx people. In recent years, I have been involved in several social movements in this city, the movement for immigrant justice led by Movimiento Cosecha GR and the Defund the GRPD movement, which is led by Black community organizers. I have heard from these leaders repeatedly how they feel threatened, dismissed and exploited. I have also heard these community organizers talk about feeling undervalued, tokenized and unsafe. Lastly, these same leaders have shared their frustrations over and over again with how white-led  or white funded organizations and are constantly undermining their work with reformist or white savior politics. 

Grand Rapids perpetuates the wealth gap with tactics like entrepreneurial gatekeeping

Based on the most recent data, Grand Rapids has the largest wealth gap of any city in Michigan. There are roughly 600 millionaires in Kent County and a few billionaire families. These 602 families have more combined wealth than the rest of the population in this area. This alone should tell you something about who has power and who doesn’t.

Grand Rapids likes to brag about how they believe in promoting the entrepreneurial spirit, but the fact is that those who have all the wealth are only interested in sharing their tricks of the trade with those who will not challenge their power and excessive wealth. There are only so many start up businesses that can exist in this city, which means they will always need workers to take advantage of. But Grand Rapids hates to call people workers, instead they prefer to call them talent, which is exactly how students in the education system are referred to in this community. 

I mean just look at the booming cannabis industry in the city and who is reaping the benefits. Those profiting from the cannabis industry are not the Black people who, until recently, were being criminalized for selling or using cannabis, but non-Black business owners, many of whom are not even based in Grand Rapids and are part of larger chain businesses.

Or look at how the DeVos family strategically provides funding through their foundations to promote wealth creation. Whether we are talking about Start Garden or AmplifyGR, DeVos funding for these projects are designed to allow the right people to gain access to wealth, and by right people I mean those who are either ideologically aligned with the DeVoses or those who will never challenge their hegemonic power. The DeVos family members are the masters at entrepreneurial gatekeeping.

The Grand Rapids Non-Profit Industrial Complex and the buffer zone

In many ways what I just described about the DeVos family is true of the non-profit and social service sector in general in this community. Non-Profit organizations often depend on the wealth of area foundations, which always comes with strings attached. The biggest string, which we could name as a noose, is designed to make sure that in order to gain access to this funding, non-profits can never challenge  structural injustice or the very root causes they claim to be addressing. We recently saw how this played out with the group Kids Food Basket, which pushed back against community organizers who were challenge their function as a White Savior entity.

One of the larger benefits to the strings-attached funding dynamics, is that it helps to create what Paul Kivel identifies as a political buffer zone. In his essay, Social Service or Social Change, Kivel names the outcome of foundation funding of non-profits as buffer zones. Buffer zones are political and social spaces created to protect systems of power by creating a dynamic where people are discouraged from asking about why they are poor, especially when the why is directed at those with the most wealth. These buffer zones are self-perpetuating, since they offer individualized opportunities, which often eliminates the opportunities for people to think about the structural barriers to racial justice or any other kind of justice they would benefit from.

Lastly, the buffer zones created by funding conditions within the non-profit sector also leads to the practice of White Saviorism. The charity-based sector does this real well in Grand Rapids, with White money and White-power dynamics determining who gets temporary relief from systems of oppression, which in this community is overwhelmingly Black and Brown people. Why else would White Liberal defend the likes of Kids Food Basket so vehemently?

Thus the pre-existing structural conditions in Grand Rapids – White Supremacy, the Wealth Gap and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex – are the very systems that must be confronted and dismantled, if we ever want to achieve equity and justice in this city. These three pre-existing structural conditions are the holy trinity of systemic oppression in Grand Rapids. So what are we going to do about it?

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