Physics, Philanthropy and Affirmative Action 

by Renee Catacalos, SAFSF vice president, strategy and impact

Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This immutable relationship between physical objects makes productive activity like forward motion by walking, swimming, tires rolling or wings flapping possible. Depending on the makeup of the two objects that are interacting with each other, it can also have destructive results, like a wrecking ball meeting a wall of bricks and mortar, a windshield meeting a flying bug, or much worse. (I was definitely not a science major, by the way.)

Does this law hold for society and our interactions as people? It seems like some actions get no reaction at all, while others get reactions that are wildly out of proportion. Maybe some of the action/reaction dynamic is tied up in the long arc of the moral universe that Martin Luther King Jr spoke of. Maybe with each action/reaction event over time, the moves toward justice go just a little farther than the moves away from justice, bending that arc whether we can see it from our current vantage point or not.

Philanthropy and the nonprofits you support are grappling with the implications of this summer’s Supreme Court decision limiting the use of race-based factors to achieve greater racial equity in college admissions. The effects of this decision will reach every area of society where affirmative action policies have begun to disrupt, if not repair, structural inequities.

I wonder whether the USDA anticipated this decision when it evaded the efforts of groups like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to fight the legal challenges to the Black farmer debt relief program in court last year, when they swapped it for a race-neutral debt relief provision in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

It makes me think about the way the Third Law of Motion, the equal and opposite reaction, operates with the First Law of Motion, which most of us know as inertia, that says an object will keep moving until a force works on it to stop it. In the action of a pendulum, the swing in one direction is countered by the reaction of the force of gravity to bring the pendulum back towards the center, eventually slowing the back-and-forth movement to smaller and smaller increments until the pendulum is still. The distance of reaction swing stops a little bit short of fully matching the previous one, slowly bringing the forces into equilibrium, unless a new force pushes the swing further. 

How far will the actions of society, of nonprofits, of philanthropy, of your organization, go to counter this most recent reaction? How far will our actions go to dampen the counterattack, the reaction swing, and, despite what feels like a setback, continue pushing that arc just a little bit more towards justice?