New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Inequality

By Focusing on the Individual, Foundations Have Missed the Mark on Racism

Editors’ Note: The following post by Leah Gordon continues the site’s ongoing discussion on philanthropy & inequality. Here, Gordon presents some of the key arguments in her recently-published book, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (U. of Chicago Press, 2015). In a subsequent post, Daniel Geary reviews the second chapter of Gordon’s book which places particular attention on the history of philanthropy & inequality. The chapter is titled “‘Data and Not Trouble’: The Rockefeller Foundation and the Social Science of Race Relations.”

In a New York Times editorial on the recent uprisings in Baltimore, conservative commentator David Brooks called for “a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” In so doing Brooks revived a debate about the relative importance of the individual and the structural sources of African American poverty that is quite familiar to historians of American social science. By suggesting that the psychology, beliefs, and behavior of the African American poor are chief causes of urban racialized poverty, Brooks, as many thoughtful critics have argued, stands in a long tradition of “culture of poverty” theorists that blame the victim. (For useful critiques of and structural alternatives to Brooks’ approach see N.B.D. Connolly, Greg Kaufmann, and Louis Hyman.)

And yet there is a second way in which individualistic, social psychological frameworks have historically been employed in debates over racial injustice with troubling results. The two most celebrated midcentury volumes in this second vein were Theodor Adorno and colleagues’ The Authoritarian Personality (1950) and Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice (1954). (We can see contemporary echoes of this tradition in recent discussions of implicit bias.) In this case, rather than placing emphasis on the psychology of individual black Americans, many liberal American social scientists and philanthropic managers prioritized research on and efforts to reform prejudiced white psyches.

Throughout much of the post-World War II period, and often in ways that leading philanthropies encouraged, many American social scientific agenda setters framed racial oppression in terms of individual perpetrators and victims. By locating racism in white Americans’ hearts and minds—not their pocketbooks, their policies, or their politics—many well-intentioned scholars and philanthropists legitimized reformist approaches that missed the mark.

Social structural, political economic, psychological, and legal conceptions of racism competed in scholarly and activist debate in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. Despite this theoretical diversity, an approach I term racial individualism, which presented prejudice and discrimination as the root cause of racial conflict, centered individuals in the study of race relations, and suggested that one could secure racial justice by changing white minds and protecting African American rights, gained considerable influence in the two decades following Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944).

My recent book, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America, asks how and why racial individualism gained traction. To answer these questions the book examines debates over the importance of prejudice to the race problem across a collection of institutions that were differently situated in postwar academic hierarchies: the Rockefeller Foundation, the University of Chicago’s race relations committee, Fisk University’s Race Relations Institutes, Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. A number of factors intersected, I find, to favor individualistic approaches to racial research and reform by the postwar years: scientism (in which social scientists embraced the investigative norms of the natural sciences, especially objectivity, theory generation, and methodological rigor); the refining of individualistic, quantifiable survey research methods; enthusiasm for interdisciplinary behavioralism; civil rights activists’ successes using psychology and rights discourse in the courts; rightward political shifts that made redistributive liberalism increasingly controversial; and the broad appeal of tolerance education. These dynamics proved influential despite ongoing critique—most notably in African-American-led academic spaces—of social theories that reduced racial oppression to individual prejudice and discrimination.

American philanthropy played an important role in shoring up postwar racial individualism. The history of Rockefeller philanthropy’s shifting approach to the race question between the late 1920s and the early 1960s—a history in which foundation leaders struggled to promote objective research on race while remaining aloof from racial politics—helps to explain why.

Rockefeller leadership had not always favored individualistic research on race, though the foundation did have a long history of separating racial reform and research (which it supported) from racial politics (which it sought to avoid). Since the early twentieth century, the Rockefeller organizations had avoided political divisiveness by accommodating segregation while prioritizing educational and social welfare initiatives in black communities. Despite these conservative leanings and in response to heightened racial conflict in the late 1910s and 1920s, two Rockefeller-affiliated committees sought to set agendas for research on “interracial issues.” Each group was deliberately interracial in make up, encouraged applied social science, and included activists and scholars in social scientific agenda setting. These committees also—crucially—examined the race issue from a variety of theoretical perspectives, including politics and economics.

Even so, some criticized these efforts for using the mantle of scientific objectivity to de-emphasize racial injustice. In response to the Rockefeller-funded The Negro in American Civilization (1930), labor leader Benjamin Stolberg accused Charles S. Johnson (an African American sociologist who led the study) of producing research that was “correlated to each other but to no social issue, and above all sterilized of all significance.” Johnson garnered much foundation support, Stolberg held, precisely because he understood that the major foundations wanted “data and not trouble.”

While Rockefeller philanthropy turned attention to racial research and reform in the post-World War II years, the action-oriented, multi-disciplinary approach it had embraced in the 1920s fell out of favor. Instead, foundation leaders moved towards racial individualism or distanced themselves from the race issue altogether. Three pressures intersected to substantially narrow approaches to racial research and reform by the postwar years: emerging antiradicalism; concerns related to scientism; and enthusiasm for interdisciplinary behavioralism.


Antiradicalism in part explains the postwar narrowing of the terms of debate on the race issue at the Rockefeller foundation. In the mid 1940s, when the specter of Nazi racism, a wave of wartime domestic racial violence, mounting efforts against southern segregation and disenfranchisement, and emerging anticommunism troubled foundation leaders, Rockefeller philanthropy sought to remain aloof from increasingly contentious racial politics. In 1946, when discussing what programs for African Americans the Rockefeller organizations should fund in New York City, Rockefeller adviser Dana Creel called for educational and social welfare initiatives in black communities despite acknowledging the political and economic sources of racialized poverty in Harlem. Creel strongly recommended foundation leaders avoid involvement with groups like the NAACP or the American Council On Race Relations, which he termed “militant” or “propagandistic” because they were making demands on government.

Rockefeller officials also made decisions about what kinds of research on race to fund amid congressional investigations into “subversive” activities by the nation’s leading foundations and the leftist scholars they supported. In fact, highlighting the ways McCarthyism constrained academic debate, congressional anticommunists often presented Myrdal’s An American Dilemma as the symbol of foundation-supported, “un-American” scholarship.

Behavioralism and Social Relations

Growing enthusiasm for the behavioral sciences and social relations paradigms, interdisciplinary approaches that highlighted individual belief and behavior and (as historian of sociology Howard Brick has argued) obscure the economic dimensions of social life, also shaped Rockefeller treatment of the race issue by the early 1950s. While the Ford Foundation launched its behavioral science initiative in 1949, Harvard University established its Department of Social Relations, which explored the intersections between sociology, social psychology, clinical psychology, and cultural anthropology in 1946.

Both experiments marked the intellectual landscape in which the Rockefeller foundation approached racial issues and contributed to the marginalization of political-economic research on race. One of the only contexts in which postwar Rockefeller officials discussed agendas for research on race at all throughout much of the 1950s was a Conference on Research in Human Relations, which the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) sponsored in 1953 to set scholarly agendas in the behavioral sciences.


Assumptions about scientific rigor also explain the narrowed terms of debate on the race issue by the 1950s. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 1953 human relations conference occurred in the wake of arguments over whether the social sciences were objective enough to be included in the new National Science Foundation. Prioritizing objectivity, theory production, and methodological rigor—and relying on elitist assumptions about what scholarly settings best fostered these ideals—conference leaders invited only scholars from leading white research institutions to this agenda setting event. They thus excluded African American scholars and the interracial group of activists who had played important leadership roles in the interwar meetings.

Related methodological considerations also favored individualistic over structural approaches to racial questions. Sociologists Robin M. Williams Jr. and Arnold Rose, participants in the 1953 conference tasked with discussing “race and culture conflict,” worried a good deal about “atomism.” They used this term to describe the individualistic, psychological drift of much sociological research on race. And yet, even these critics of atomism admitted that methodological considerations limited their ability to examine the sources of racial conflict that could not be reduced to individual belief and behavior. This problem, Williams later acknowledged, narrowed the scope of the Rockefeller-funded research he conducted on the relationship between prejudice and social context (a giant research undertaking that was summarized in Strangers Next Door: Ethnic Relations in American Communities (1964)). Perhaps more importantly, Rockefeller philanthropy supported very little research on race generally, and only one project on race that was not behavioral in orientation, in the decade following the conference.

Of course, prejudice is an important component of racial oppression and social psychologists have added a great deal to our understandings of bigotry. It is important to recognize, however, that viewing the complex set of political, economic, institutional, cultural, sociological, and psychological dynamics that made up the midcentury “race problem” largely through a psychological lens had important costs. As legal scholar Lani Guinier, historian Thomas Sugrue, and others have argued, framing racism in terms of white psychology and morality posed challenges for activists fighting extra-legal segregation, reinforced legal frameworks in which only intentional racial harms were actionable, and made the racialized economic inequality that persists in the post-Civil Rights Act era of “formal equality” difficult to fight. Racial individualism also encouraged Americans to ask too much of their schools, making education a solution to racial injustice, with decidedly mixed results.

The caution Rockefeller executives employed when deciding how to fund studies on racial injustice and inequality is understandable, especially at the height of McCarthyism. Still, today’s philanthropic agenda setters should remember that both the social psychology of poor African American families and the social psychology of prejudiced whites have a long history in American social science. While psychological frameworks have aided struggles for racial justice in important ways, they have also, at times, obscured the political, economic, and institutional legacies of white supremacy.

If today’s philanthropic managers see recent racial uprising as a call for new thinking on racial injustice, I hope they will acknowledge that racism is not only a problem of attitudes and behaviors, whether white or black, but also of power and resources. I also hope they will keep Stolberg’s critique of interwar philanthropists in mind. This is because while efforts to combat white prejudice historically met broad support, efforts to redistribute power and resources frequently caused “trouble.”

-Leah Gordon

Leah Gordon is Assistant Professor of Education and (by courtesy) of History at Stanford University. She is the author of From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (U. of Chicago Press, 2015).


One thought on “By Focusing on the Individual, Foundations Have Missed the Mark on Racism

  1. Pingback: Responding to Leah Gordon’s FROM POWER TO PREJUDICE (2015) | HistPhil

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