A center at Harvard University devoted to the study of people of African descent has received a $10 million donation from its namesake, financier Glenn Hutchins, for projects including a study of poverty, inequality, and race in Greater Boston’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
The “Race, Class, and Cumulative Adversity” project will send as many as 25 students into communities in Boston and around Massachusetts to gather information for a broad inquiry into the kaleidoscope of factors shaping racial and economic inequality.
Hutchins said Wednesday that he believes there have not been enough resources devoted to investigating those challenges, which the nation is struggling to understand.
His gift includes $2 million for the research at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, will be aimed at influencing public policy. The remainder will go to other projects at the center.
“I think we’ve learned that even though we have an African-American president . . . we are not in a post-racial society, and these issues are every bit as important as they’ve been in the past,” he said. “It’s a very important issue that’s been starved for what I might call investment capital.”
Hutchins, cofounder of the technology investment firm Silver Lake, graduated from Harvard College in 1977 and later earned degrees from the law and business schools. He was a special adviser on economic and health care policy in the Clinton administration.
Four years ago, he donated $15 million to establish the center, which includes several research institutes, two art galleries, and a hip-hop archive.
Hutchins made the latest contribution through his family foundation. The Ford Foundation has also donated $1 million for the study, which is seeking to raise additional money.
Sociologist William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard, will lead the study, working with five other noted academics.
He said the Boston area provides a strong setting for the research because Harvard will provide the graduate students who work on the study with a base for their efforts. Boston also faces many of the same issues that other parts of the nation contend with.
Wilson said researchers may also work in municipalities including Brockton and Lawrence, all with the goal of finding out more about how issues facing poor and minority communities affect one another.
“When you think about race, what are you thinking about? You’re thinking about violence, you’re thinking about the encounters with police, and so on,” Wilson said.
However, he said, the reality is much more complex.
“It’s not just criminal justice systems that potentially entrap the poor,” he said. “Exposure to violence undermines learning, mental health, even the development of human capital skills.”
Georgene Bess Montgomery, president of the National Council for Black Studies, said she believes Hutchins’s gift is the largest ever given to any of the approximately 350 African-American studies programs at colleges and universities nationwide.
“It really does validate the work that we do,” said Bess Montgomery, who teaches at Clark Atlanta University. “It puts black studies front and center in the conversation.”
She said the donation comes at a critical time as Americans confront increased tensions over race relations.
“More than anything else, this is the affirmation and proclamation that black lives matter at a time when we have to proclaim ourselves that black lives matter,” Bess Montgomery said.
Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said the organization welcomes the research effort and hopes it will help “drive policy and deliver solutions.”
“Typically, these challenges are looked at historically and not based on generations of systemic barriers to wealth and prosperity,” he said.
Curry cited a report issued last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that said white households in Greater Boston held more wealth than African-Americans, Caribbean blacks, Cape Verdeans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to turn that report into action,” Curry said.
Darnell Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said much research has already been devoted to racial and economic inequality in Greater Boston. Five studies examining the issue came out last year, he said.
“I think we have a handle on where the inequalities are,” Williams said. “The challenge is how do we focus the research so we break people out of poverty.”
He suggested the Harvard researchers revisit the other studies and look for ways to create wealth and eliminate the cycle of poverty that afflicts many families in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.
“We have a great deal of studies that have already been made,” Williams said. “Rather than spending $10 million, what can we extrapolate from those existing reports so we can improve the outcomes for the people that they’re talking about?”
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has been updated to clarify that $2 million of Hutchins’s gift will go to the “Race, Class, and Cumulative Adversity” project.