Cambridge, Mass., Funds Theater Performances for ‘Exclusively Black Audiences’

Law professor says liberal city's racial justice program 'overtly discriminatory'

The John Weeks Footbridge with Harvard behind it on in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
April 12, 2024

The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced tens of thousands of dollars in grants aimed at tackling racial justice through the arts. Included in the taxpayer-funded effort are theater performances for "exclusively black audiences," the city said in a Monday press release.

The Front Porch Arts Collective will receive a $7,500 grant to produce "BlackOut" performances for "exclusively black audiences," the grant announcement states. Those performances depict the "black experience" and "prioritize black and brown front-of-house and support staff." The group plans "to remove barriers to black attendance" by implementing "deeply subsidized ticketing and pay what you want admission models."

"Thoughtful staffing prioritizing black and brown front-of-house and support staff and companion programming like post-performance discussion and a pre-show reception are also curated to ensure that the entire experience is elevated, joyful, and above all creates a welcoming, exclusive, and safe space," the grant said.

While Cambridge is far from the only U.S. entity to fund racially segregated programs, some have reversed course over legal concerns.

Last year, for example, Pfizer quietly amended its Breakthrough Fellowship program to remove a provision that barred whites and Asians from applying. Top law firms Winston & Strawn and Susman Godfrey revised similar programs last year, while the Smithsonian's Latino history museum in March opened its "Latinx" internship program to all races in face of a legal challenge.

In total, Cambridge—which houses Harvard University—is handing out $67,000 in "art for social justice" grants to nine recipients. "Cambridge Arts operates with funding from local government, private foundations, corporate sponsors, and individual donors," according to its grant guidelines.

A "BlackOut" event held in Boston last October was described as "a private evening of theatre for Africans dispersed throughout the world—Black folk of all ethnicities."

This financial support to artists comes from the city of Cambridge and statewide entities such as the Local Cultural Council Program, according to the release. The Massachusetts Cultural Council Program, according to its website, is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

"Each year, the City of Cambridge contributes substantial funding to support local artists, cultural workers, and arts organizations through the Cambridge Arts Grant Program. This support is coupled with funding received through the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s statewide Local Cultural Council Program," the Monday release stated.

Cambridge Arts states in its social justice grant guidelines that it focuses on projects involving myriad "underserved and underrepresented groups," including those who "identify as people of color."

"We are seeking projects that reflect the interests, visions, and participation of those who have historically been underserved and underrepresented—this includes the participation of those who identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian American, or Pacific Islander, others who identify as people of color, as well as persons with disabilities."

The Midday Movement Series, another grant recipient, seeks to "transform culture" away from "whiteness" through dance, according to the grant’s description from the press release.

"Growing from our work on our Decentering Whiteness in Contemporary Dance Pedagogy workshops, our Black Indigenous People Of Color (BIPOC) Professional Dancer Mentorship Program, and the mentorship and professional development coaching we have provided to our dedicated teachers since our inception," the grant description states, "‘Shades of Movement’ aims to support BIPOC artists—individually and collectively—as a key method toward racial justice: whereas equity seeks to reform our system, justice aims to transform our culture."

Another grant listed in the press release will go to the Asian American Ballet Project, which operates a "ballet company made up entirely of Asian American dancers" and is set to receive $7,500 from Cambridge Arts.

"Our first concert left a strong impression on our audience members; the existence of a ballet company made up entirely of Asian American dancers is important and meaningful," the grant description said.

University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, called the programs "overtly discriminatory" in a statement shared with the Washington Free Beacon.

"It’s remarkable how many overtly discriminatory programs state and local governments are engaged in these days. Civil rights attorneys—at least the ones who take the concept of equal protection seriously—are having to play the game of 'Whack-A-Mole,'" Heriot said. "If it sounds outrageous when applied to whites, the government probably shouldn’t be doing it."

The city of Cambridge in 2017 launched its Cambridge Equity and Inclusion Initiative, which later expanded to include anti-racism as a "key focus," according to a 2022 city press release. City leaders participate in a meeting every two months to discuss programs that teach "conscious listening," "microaggressions," and the ability to "move beyond the fear and discomfort of new learning."

"This purpose aligns with the Envision Cambridge goal to ‘end race-based disparities and achieve racial equity’ and strategy to ‘bring race and cultural diversity to the forefront of local policy-making and increase cultural competency around issues of race,’" the 2022 release said.

The city of Cambridge did not return a request for comment.