Getting Our Forty Acres: Crowdfunding, Reparations, and Black Economic Justice

In a society where equitable access to jobs, housing, and financial services is still threatened by racist discrimination, crowdfunding is a tool that has helped marginalized communities deal with the impact of economic violence.

by YM Carrington on August 10th, 2015

Crowdfunding pages are ubiquitous on the Internet. It seems like every time I turn around, there is another person raising money for housing, food, college tuition, medical bills, or business startup funds through a crowdfunding site. Crowdfunding sites and apps like GoFundMe, FundRazr, YouCaring, Indiegogo, and countless others allow people to raise money from other people all over the world with the push of a button.

Those of us who are locked out of traditional avenues because of physical disability, neurodivergence, geography, income, or limited technical knowledge can easily access crowdfunding services as long as we can get access to the internet. We aren’t required to have any special skills in web development, or administrative management, or even any prior fundraising experience. For communities of color who have long been ignored by both the technology and financial industries, crowdfunding can literally be a lifesaver. Instead of having to turn to exploitative financial services like payday lending and prepaid debit cards, or criminalized economies when we’re faced with financial emergencies, we can create a GoFundMe or YouCaring account and raise the cash for that much-needed medication or emergency room visit.

For Black communities, online crowdfunding is often used as a tool to fill in gaps in our household income. We know that African Americans as a whole earn less income and have drastically less net worth comparatively than white Americans, even when factors like gender, sexual orientation, age, education level, work experience, and geographic region are controlled for. Even when we have a full-time job or several part-time jobs, many working-age Black folks do not earn enough income to support themselves without assistance. According to the study “Paying an Unfair Price” by the Movement Advancement Project, the poverty rate for African Americans in general is over 27%, compared with 9% for whites respectively. Our income and wealth gaps result from both present-day economic discrimination and the historic devaluation and theft of our labor that defines our relationship to the United States economy. For Black people who identify as LGBTQIA, the comparative poverty rates are even higher.

Indie-GoGo crowdfunding page for post-production of the FREE CeCe documentary, which raised over $35,000 from 511 people. The campaign page shows CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox walking together in a park.

Crowdfunding page for the FREE CeCe! documentary, focused on the epidemic of violence against transgender women of color.

As Black entrepreneur and racial justice activist Brenda Nasr notes, “We have had to settle for scraps — often in the form of ‘welfare’ — while struggling to make ends meet. Before crowdfunding, there have been few avenues for us to change this paradigm as many in our immediate network are similarly situated financially.” The few avenues Nasr describes here were community institutions created by Black people themselves, such as churches, fraternal organizations, schools, banks, and Black-owned businesses. While these community institutions were critically important to the economic health of Black communities before the 1960s, they were under constant attack from local white authorities who viewed Black economic autonomy as a threat. The 1898 Wilmington massacre and the 1921 Tulsa massacre are two historical examples of white extralegal attacks on Black self-determination.

When I was struggling with the sudden loss of unemployment benefits a couple of years ago, I created a (now defunct) GoFundMe page specifically for rent and household bills. This fund allowed me to raise enough money to live in my current residence and pay my phone bill for over a year. Supplementing my earned income with crowdfunding was essential during this difficult period in my life, a time where I could have easily ended up on the street without support from my online community networks. Today I am a staunch supporter of crowdfunding and other fundraising strategies for trans/non-binary people and people of color.

When it comes to even more catastrophic events like eviction, hospitalization, or arrest, being able to raise desperately needed cash quickly can mean the difference between life and death. Crowdfunding campaigns have focused on rehabilitative care for poor and uninsured people who have survived accidental injury or sudden illness, many of whom face intersectional barriers to living wage income and health care. Another example is the hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations around the country that would not have been possible without online crowdfunding. The quick access to bail money and legal defense funds from crowdfunding campaigns shared across social media made it possible for thousands of Black demonstrators to manage the risk of arrest and criminal charges. Supporters of racial justice movements have also created crowdfunding pages to address the ongoing economic needs of Black justice activists, who often experience job loss or resource disruption from dedicating their lives to justice work.

There have also been crowdfunding campaigns for funeral expenses for people who are victims extralegal violence. Many people are familiar with the fundraisers for the surviving families of Black people who are killed by police, such as the now defunct GoFundMe campaign to support the mother and sister of murdered Cleveland preteen Tamir Rice. Given the fact that systematic poverty overlaps with racist criminalization, it isn’t surprising that the families of murdered people of color often need help paying for burial expenses. Sex worker advocates created a crowdfunder for two Black cis women who were found murdered near a Florida highway last year. Trans justice activists have created crowdfunding campaigns to cover funeral expenses for trans women of color who have been murdered.

Photo of the Millions March march for justice for victims of police violence in NYC. Protestors hold signs that together form Eric Garner's eyes, staring out from the crowd and streets.

Photo CC-BY The All-Nite Images, cropped and filtered.

However, an unofficial observation among many of us in Black justice circles is that Black people with crowdfunding pages are less likely to reach our campaign goals than our white peers. This is true even when the goal amount is relatively small and the financial need is urgent. Many of us have firsthand experience of starting a crowdfunding page that reaches less than half of its total goal, even when the goal is less than $1,000.

Further, Black trans folks who create crowdfunding campaigns have stated that white trans people are way more likely to reach their fundraising goals than Black trans campaigns. Black trans journalist and writer Janet Mock wrote about how Black trans women-specific campaigns are overlooked, even on major crowdfunding sites like IndieGoGo. For urgent needs like housing or transition-related expenses, the racial disparities in support often translate into increased exposure to danger for Black trans people. Often, the higher incomes and greater net worth of white people in general results in white trans informal networks that have more disposable income than their Black and Brown counterparts.

Additionally, Black people with crowdfunding pages have been reported for fraud by non-Black people who have assumed that any Black people fundraising online must be grifters and scammers attempting to con gullible people. Shdiva Black and Sherri White, a formerly homeless Black lesbian couple who created a GoFundMe page to secure permanent housing, dealt with rejection from people in their community circles because of the continued need to crowdfund their rent every month. The couple even had their GFM page reported by former friends who accused them of fraud.

Even though dozens of white-led startup campaigns have been exposed and even sued for fraud and misrepresentation over the years, the antiblack narratives of inherent dishonesty and criminality fuel society’s dismissive attitudes toward Black people with genuine economic need. No matter how often supposedly innovative white cis male tech entrepreneurs are exposed as fraudsters, their proposed projects always receive the benefit of the doubt from potential donors. Meanwhile, Black crowdfunding users must deal the stigma of criminality no matter how responsible and accountable they are.

What About Reparations?

A protester holding a sign that reads No Justice, No Peace with the hashtags for Black Lives Matter and I Can't Breathe.

Photo CC-BY Paul Silva, filtered.

The idea of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans has long been controversial in the United States. Given that US society is still reluctant to acknowledge the historic dependence on slave labor that built this country’s immense wealth, this is not surprising. Reparations as a political demand in the Black freedom movement has been around for at least fifty years, but there has always been debate about the practicality and merits of the reparations agenda. The reparations movement gained prominence fourteen years ago with the 2001 publication of Randall Robinson’s “The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks.” Robinson’s book argued that reparations to African Americans were long overdue for the massive wealth generated by two centuries of slavery. Robinson also argued that much of the infrastructure of the early US government was made possible through slave labor, citing the construction of the planned national capital Washington DC as the most obvious example. Last year, reparations got another boost when Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations” was published in The Atlantic. Coates argued that reparations was not only due to African Americans for slavery, but also for the widespread economic violence that both US government and private industry have waged on Black communities in the century and a half since emancipation.

This year to mark the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth—a holiday commemorating the liberation of enslaved people in Texas—Brenda Nasr and other Black people in my online feminist and queer-trans circles decided to create Juneteenth-themed crowdfunding pages. Specifically these crowdfunding pages were intended as a form of compensation for the unpaid educational work Black people are forced to do within social justice communities, but they also linked their pages’ goals to the larger demand for reparations. The message of these pages was twofold: naming the devaluation of Black labor that is rampant in both social justice struggles and larger US society to the government’s historic betrayal of Reconstruction, and reminding supporters of the government’s unkept promise that every Black family would get “forty acres and a mule” after emancipation. While the individual fundraisers had different objectives and varying levels of success, the unifying statement was clear: this country’s economic and moral debt to to Black people is long overdue.

In a society where equitable access to jobs, housing, and financial services is still threatened by racist discrimination, crowdfunding is a tool that has helped marginalized communities deal with the impact of economic violence. With the ability to crowdsource funding online, Black people have harnessed the power of web-based innovation for our basic survival, as we have done with every form of technology throughout this country’s history. As Brenda Nasr says, “Now [with crowdfunding], we have been empowered to broaden our platform by circulating crowd-sourcing campaigns to a wider audience and those who understand the importance of economic justice. This is especially true for campaigns that specifically address restitution from a place of reparations, or giving back to Black people what has been historically denied to us.”