Liberal Foundations And Anti-Racism Activism
Michael Barker - August 24, 2009
(Swans - August 24, 2009) Tens of thousands of philanthropic foundations finance social change within the United States, and last year they distributed $45.6 billion worth of grants. Thus given the not insignificant amounts of money being distributed by such foundations, an important question to ask is: how has this funding influenced anti-racism research and the evolution of race-related activism more generally? Yet to date few scholars in the field of race relations have attempted to address this simple yet critically important question. Scholarly attention has of course been paid to the role of right-wing foundations in promoting often racist neoliberal politics, but for reasons unknown, the influence of liberal foundations has for the most part been left untouched. This phenomenon is worrying given the small yet growing critical literature on philanthropy.
As might be expected, liberal philanthropists like many other unaccountable and undemocratic bodies regularly downplay the magnitude of their influence on society, successfully disguising the arguably crucial hegemonic function they fulfill for ruling elites. Of course, similar claims from other key powerbrokers — like the mainstream media — are rightfully met with skepticism, but in the case of liberal foundations the opposite appears to be the case. Consequently researchers (in most fields) have naively accepted the liberal foundations’ own benign sounding rhetoric at face value, and have ignored or belittled their influence on democratic processes.
One of the most important books exploring the detrimental influence of liberal foundations on social change was Robert Arnove’s edited collection Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (G.K. Hall, 1980). Contrary to popular interpretations of the effects of liberal philanthropy, Arnove observes that liberal foundations like the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation “have a corrosive influence on a democratic society” and “represent relatively unregulated and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth which buy talent, promote causes, and, in effect, establish an agenda of what merits society’s attention.” Arnove and Nadine Pinede recently updated this critique noting that while the big three foundations — that is, Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie — “are considered to be among the most progressive in the sense of being forward looking and reform-minded,” they are also “among the most controversial and influential of all the foundations.” Indeed, as both Edward Berman and Frances Stonor Saunders have demonstrated, the activities of all three of these foundations have been closely entwined with the work of US foreign policy elites, including most notably the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (1)
Despite having long associations with both the CIA and also the civil rights movement (relationships that were sustained simultaneously throughout the 1960s), the big three foundations continue (without criticism, except from the Right, that is) to play an important role in funding anti-racism work. Therefore in the light of this information, this article will provide the first comprehensive (and critical) historical overview of the role of liberal philanthropy in funding both racially based advocacy efforts and anti-racism research. The study will begin by highlighting the role played by liberal foundations in the production of two academic books that are widely recognised as having exerted an influential role on the evolution of the civil rights movement. Then, with a strong focus on the role of the Ford Foundation, the article will review how liberal philanthropists deradicalised the civil rights movement, and will then go on to provide a brief overview of the range of anti-racism projects that the Ford Foundation has supported to date. Finally, the article will conclude by offering a number of recommendations for how anti-racism activists may begin to move away from their (arguably unsustainable) reliance on liberal foundation philanthropy.