Editors’ Note: HistPhil’s Maribel Morey reviews Tiffany Willoughby-Herard’s new book, Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (University of California Press, 2015).
In a 1914 editorial titled “World War and the Color Line,” African American historian W.E.B. Du Bois explained to Black readers of the NAACP’s Crisis why they should feel invested in a war among white Europeans. While acknowledging that the English, French, and German subjugated, victimized, and disdained “colored races” throughout the world, he argued that the former two groups of whites had begun to realize “the cost and evil” of racial prejudice. Du Bois thus urged Crisis readers to place their sympathies with France and England, rather than Germany, during the war.
For the last three years, I have taught Du Bois’s essay in my undergraduate U.S. history survey course; and each year, it has been insightful to see how students struggle to appreciate early-twentieth-century Black readers’ conflation of white Europeans and thus why these earlier Americans might have questioned the value of caring about the outcome of the First World War. This is particularly interesting since these same students tend to be rather accustomed to (and comfortable) thinking of Black Americans as a unified group and treating Blackness as a transnational category. In large part, I think, this has to do with the way that we learn American and European political histories in this country; a point that Tiffany Willoughby-Herard makes in her new book, Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (UC Press, 2015). For HistPhil readers, it is precisely the author’s analysis of whiteness and anti-Blackness in the formation of white nation-states such as South Africa and the United States that is most relevant, even more so than her chapters on the Carnegie Corporation.
In the introduction, Willoughby-Herard notes that students of political history in white-dominated countries such as South Africa and the United States too often have parsed out the nuances and distinctions between whites (whether “North versus South, Boer versus Briton versus Yankee, and even American exceptionalism versus South African exceptionalism”) at the expense of appreciating whites’ common interests in nation-state formation (34). Channeling some of the skepticism among W.E.B. Du Bois’s readership, Willoughby-Herard makes clear that whites across oceans long have been invested in creating nation-states that perpetuate white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
Even more, the author explains that whites’ continued discussions of “white poverty” have played central roles in furthering white supremacy in these nation-states. Not only have these conversations provided whites with ‘primitive’ images of themselves to complement their countries’ white origins stories; but by perceiving white poverty as a social problem and finding policy solutions to solve it, whites have played their part in ensuring that they continue to be associated with a linear story of modern progress. In other words, the very concept of white poverty and the conversations orbiting around it work to equate whiteness with modernity and Blackness with backwardness. This perception of poverty among whites as particularly problematic also privileges whites as rightful beneficiaries of a higher quality of life while ignoring the suffering of other individuals and groups in the same socio-economic standing. And as Willoughby-Herard shows, it does so by assuming that poor whites somehow are the quintessential and original members of the national community.
The author illustrates this racialized dynamic at play by focusing on “white poverty” in South Africa, and the role of the Carnegie Corporation in furthering this strand of investigation in the region with its funding of the Report of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa (The Poor White Study, 1932). Justifying the inclusion of the American foundation in her narrative, the author writes that placing “the Carnegie Corporation in the context of racial violence both domestic and international… and its interest in a ‘franchise to govern, in important indirect ways’ in all of the English-speaking colonies is powerfully informative” (18). From the author’s perspective then, the American philanthropy founded in 1911 by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie played a central and singular role as an agent of white supremacy in South Africa (as well as the United States) during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Building from this assumption, Willoughby-Herard sets forth a seven-chapter book. She analyzes the place of white poverty discussions in nation-state formation in South Africa; offers close textual readings of The Poor White Study and other works by South African researchers on the Carnegie-funded project; and, suggests the intentions of the elite American foundation for playing a part in furthering white supremacy in Africa during the early decades of the twentieth century.
The author is a political scientist, so it is unsurprising that she is strongest and most compelling in her examination of whiteness and anti-Blackness in the formation of a South African nation-state. Her suggestion that ongoing conversations on white poverty have reinforced white supremacy in other white-dominated countries such as the United States is also very convincing. She is on less solid footing, however, in the history of U.S. philanthropy. It is understandable that the author, writing about white-Black relations on a transnational level, would want to present the Carnegie Corporation’s intentions in American race relations along with her analysis of its calculations for white-Black relations in South Africa. But in this effort, she has put forth an inaccurate history of the organization in the United States. For starters, she equates the Carnegie Corporation with all Carnegie foundations and with Andrew Carnegie himself, leading her to blame the Corporation for using “deadly force (private and public) and the Pennsylvania governor’s office” during the Homestead Strike of 1892 (20). However, Andrew Carnegie founded the organization some nineteen years later. It did not exist at the time of the strike.
Beyond the United States and in the South African context, Willoughby-Herard describes the American foundation as a “segregationist philanthropy” that “intervened in South African intellectual life and parliamentary politics in order to suppress Black radical viewpoints and legitimate white nationalism” (116). It is fair to say that the Carnegie Corporation’s leadership at the time bought into the value of white supremacy both in the U.S. as in South Africa; but it would be inaccurate to describe them as segregationists on either side of the Atlantic. For starters, the same Carnegie Corporation president who funded The Poor White Study also commissioned Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944); a two-volume social scientific study of white-Black relations in the United States that helped white Americans interpret racial discrimination as a national moral failure. And far from being oblivious to Myrdal’s argument in favor of racial desegregation, Carnegie Corporation President Frederick P. Keppel had read and commended An American Dilemma’s thesis before its publication. To put it simply then, Keppel’s intentions for white-Black relations cannot be described simply as “segregationist.”
Under the same blanket characterization of the Carnegie Corporation, the author also assumes that the foundation equated Black Americans and Africans, which it did only to a certain degree. As an example of the different treatment the two received, President Keppel was invested in furthering Black Americans’ equality in a way that he was not of Africans’ own. So while Willoughby-Herard is absolutely correct to argue that the Corporation was intent primarily on helping whites across the Atlantic, she simplifies these foundation leaders’ calculations and expectations in white-Black relations. In a similar vein, she overstates the significance of the American foundation in shaping race relations in both countries. I suspect that this is a result of the author’s study of the Carnegie foundation to the exclusion of other philanthropies and missionary societies peppering these networks of white experts at the time.
Even with all of these caveats, however, Waste of a White Skin is a crucially important contribution, not only for political theorists and historians who continue to privilege a white lens in their investigations of political change within and beyond white nation-states, but also for HistPhil readers intent on peeling away at white supremacy both within and outside of the United States. For example, Willoughby-Herard’s analysis of racialized nation-state building helps explain why white Americans might feel that they belong in the United States in a very different and more profound way than minority groups. After all, as the author suggests, whites across the Atlantic have reinforced origin stories that place themselves at the center of their national histories. So from this perspective, today’s white American citizens might feel that they (rather than say, Black or Hispanic citizens) are more rightful members of this national community. However, as Waste of a White Skin also illustrates, this is simply a myth. And as we all know, we have the power and control to move beyond fairy tales.
As citizens, we can choose to disentangle our national identities from their roots in white supremacy and, as Willoughby-Herard shows, we can start by ending the obsession with commemorating poverty among whites and perceiving that their hardship is any more problematic than poverty among all Americans. This will require us, though, to undo the stories we have internalized about who created our national geographies and so too who continues to enjoy a greater claim to belonging within it. For leaders in the nonprofit sector, this also means questioning whom they deem most worthy of their attention and aid.
Reading this book against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s white nationalist messaging during the presidential campaign and his subsequent election as U.S. president, I cannot help but reflect on Democrats’ current preoccupation with rural and working class whites. Trying to make sense of Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s victory during the past few weeks, for example, many Clinton supporters in the philanthropic world have honed in on these white Americans. In this vein, philanthropy writer David Callahan has called the foundation world “to think long and hard about what it can do to address the plight of struggling white Americans who feel forgotten.”
If philanthropic organizations heed this call, however, they might well be fueling—rather than placating—the white supremacist sentiments that helped elect Trump in the first place. Assuming today’s philanthropic leaders want to disempower, rather than empower, white supremacy in the United States as elsewhere, Willoughby-Herard’s book cautions that we all need to let go of the idea that white poverty is any more pressing than poverty among all Americans. Let us remember this: All citizens need to be assured their humanity and dignity. By privileging whites’ economic dissatisfaction over those of other Americans, Waste of a White Skin warns that we simply might be reinforcing our countries’—or rather, our modern world’s—roots in white supremacy.
-Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor