New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Inequality

Responding to Leah Gordon’s FROM POWER TO PREJUDICE (2015)

Editors’ NoteThis spring, we asked Daniel Geary to review the second chapter of Leah Gordon’s recently-published book, From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America (U. of Chicago Press, 2015). Titled “‘Data and Not Trouble’: The Rockefeller Foundation and the Social Science of Race Relations,” this second chapter places particular attention on the history of the Rockefeller Foundation and racial inequality in the United States. In an earlier post on this site, Gordon discussed some of the central arguments of the book.  

I truly enjoyed reading this chapter from Leah Gordon’s From Power to Prejudice. I think her meticulously researched book will make a significant contribution to our understanding of racial ideas in the mid-twentieth-century United States.

Chapter Two explores the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding of racial research during the middle decades of the twentieth century. It is insightful and full of fascinating details. But I am skeptical that the evidence it contains proves Gordon’s overall point about a move in the postwar period toward individualistic, psychological, and scientistic approaches toward the study of race. In my view, the chapter tells us more about the kind of research that philanthropists—Rockefeller in particular—wanted to fund than it does about these broader trends.

Gordon hits the nail on the head when she quotes Benjamin Stolberg that the Rockefeller Foundation wanted “data not trouble.” But the fact that this quote comes from 1930 undercuts the notion that foundation-funded research shifted from “power” to “prejudice.” Rather, it seems that Rockefeller was never interested in funding research that directly addressed power relations and political economy. As Gordon notes, the foundation funded Charles Johnson’s The Negro in American Civilization, the work that drew Stolberg’s scorn, but did not empower him to draw obvious conclusions from the information he gathered on segregation and labor exploitation. Indeed, as Gordon also notes, Rockefeller’s long history of ties to Southern moderates meant its willingness to consider economic approaches partly resulted from its unwillingness to directly confront Jim Crow.

At least as far as the Rockefeller Foundation was concerned, then, a shift toward understanding racial prejudice would seem to have been a progressive step.

However, as Gordon also reveals, the foundation remained timid in addressing Jim Crow during the postwar period. Especially telling is the fact that it declined to fund Robin Williams’s proposed extension of his Rockefeller study on race relations to include school desegregation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Williams was right when he criticized the foundation for failing to engage with “one of the major social changes of our generation.” This political timidity reflects on the Rockefeller Foundation more so than on postwar scholars of prejudice. Many social scientists were actually forthright critics of Jim Crow as evident in the prominent role they played in the Brown decision.

I have not read Gordon’s entire book so it may be unfair of me to criticize her overall thesis that postwar social science shifted from power to prejudice. Nevertheless, I am skeptical of it on the basis of this chapter and her introduction.  I certainly agree with her on the limits of individualistic approaches to race and share her appreciation for the scholarship of the interwar interracial left represented by E. Franklin Frazier and others whose influence unfortunately faded in the postwar period. But I am doubtful of the extent to which a focus on political economy was ever dominant in the interwar period. I also question the notion that the psychological approaches that gained dominance in the postwar period were necessarily also individualistic and scientistic. Many of the leading scholars of prejudice such as Gordon Allport and Thomas Pettigrew were concerned with institutional change and were open critics of Jim Crow at a time when even liberal white intellectuals were far more cautious. And the main author of perhaps the most influential postwar psychological study of prejudice, The Authoritarian Personality (1950), was Theodor Adorno, a Marxist who believed that only radical economic change could eliminate the root causes of bigotry. Perhaps when I read the rest of Gordon’s book, I will accept its thesis more fully. What I am certain of is that the richness of her research and depth of her insight will make the reading well worth my while.

As for the Rockefeller Foundation, what I conclude from this chapter is that its timidity made it essentially irrelevant to the postwar study of race. None of the studies it produced were particularly influential. Its unwillingness to study school desegregation—even after the Brown decision—placed it well behind most postwar scholars of race. The obvious contrast is with the Carnegie Corporation, which greatly influenced discussions of race with its funding of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944). The Myrdal study was far from perfect and it won the foundation some conservative enemies in the postwar period. But because Carnegie was willing to try to lead public opinion, the money it spent actually made a difference.

-Daniel Geary

Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin.  He is the author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

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