Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Inequality

Scientific Knowledge on Minority Groups during the Trump Era

Editors’ Note: HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey reports on her impressions of a forum on populism, the world order, and the Trump era hosted by the Carnegie Corporation and Time Magazine at the foundation’s offices last week.

At the Carnegie Corporation offices in midtown Manhattan this past Tuesday, I attended a panel discussion coordinated by the foundation and Time Magazine on “A Populist Revolt? The Transformation of the World Order in the Trump Era.” I found the conversation engaging if bleak in its general diagnosis of the rise of populism in the United States and throughout Europe; technology’s role in segmenting citizens from each other; democratic societies’ devaluation of their principles; and the likelihood that we, in the United States, are confronting the threat of authoritarianism at home.

The three panelists included Ian Bremmer from the Eurasia Group Foundation, Roger Cohen from The New York Times, and Pippa Norris from Harvard University, University of Sydney, and the Electoral Integrity Project. The moderator was Time’s Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer.

Among the panelists and moderator, there was a general consensus that progressive elements in democracies (and perhaps democracies themselves) are under siege. Sharing this concern, I looked around at our meeting place and noted that we, after all, were at the Carnegie Corporation offices. I wondered what people like us—foundation and nonprofit staff, academics, and citizens— gathered there as participants of civil society, would do to defend democracy. The demise of a democratic society, after all, signals the disintegration of civil society. So in this way, we all should feel a deep need to mobilize against these current trends in the United States as in Europe.

I asked the panelists what we all could do. Cohen suggested that Americans need to give thought to the ways that we define our national communities, while Bremmer called for us all to lead by example. Offering practical policy prescriptions for strengthening democratic life in the United States, Norris urged citizens to look at the state-level and find ways to address gerrymandering, increase women’s participation in politics, strengthen civic engagement, establish automatic voter registration, and address campaign financing. Overall, she suggested that foundations could play a critical role in this process by bringing together scholars, policymakers, and bureaucrats from around the world whose experience in democraticizing societies could inform Americans today.

These were all thoughtful recommendations that sounded reasonable to me. At the same time, they failed to capture my own fears about this moment in time. Specifically, I am anxious about the ways that rising tides in nativism and nationalism– and their electoral successes on either side of the Atlantic– will worsen the lives of minority groups. And particularly as a scholar, I am also worried that this Trump era will further distort our sense of scientific truth about each other in American life. I fear that U.S. President Trump’s description of minority groups and criminality increasingly will become even more mainstream and sway social scientists’ analyses of minority groups. Most recently, this weekend, for example, Trump tweeted that the “crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed.” In two sentences, he succeeded in demonizing undocumented immigrants, or more broadly, anyone whom his supporters might consider to be outsiders. And when thinking of the damage that could be done to the social sciences by these sorts of assaults, my thoughts turned to a subject that I have researched: the role of foundations during the rise of the Third Reich and the response of academics.

In 1933, the Rockefeller Foundation commissioned Swedish social scientists Gunnar Myrdal and Alva Reimer Myrdal to investigate the status of the social sciences in Germany when the Nazis had come to power earlier that year and had dismissed Jewish and left-leaning researchers from institutes and university departments that the philanthropy was funding. The Myrdals had been Rockefeller Fellows some years earlier, and since then, had remained key advisers to the organization on these academic fields in Europe. In particular, the Foundation wanted to know from the Stockholm-based couple if the newly appointed members in the foundation-funded research teams in Germany, along with their continuing members, were capable of “free research” untainted by “political bias.” The Myrdals responded with a six-page summary of their impressions; and for the most part, they suggested that the foundation still could trust that objective work was possible in the country.

And indeed, the American philanthropy continued to fund social scientists in Germany for years, though the Third Reich clamped down on scholarly freedom and citizens’ rights. The philanthropy’s leadership simply maintained hope that some semblance of objective research in the social sciences was possible under the Third Reich, even as Adolf Hitler’s regime dismissed scientists whom it deemed Jewish or political opponents and suppressed freedom of thought in academic work in favor of Aryan propaganda. To put it yet another way, the Rockefeller Foundation’s staff and trustees were still debating if and when they should cease working in Germany years after the Third Reich had enacted its Nuremberg Laws defining Jewish identity and subsequently relegating German Jews to second-class status.

Assuming today’s philanthropic leaders want to be more proactive than the 1930s’ Rockefeller Foundation in their response to a period in the United States being analogized to the Third Reich, the Myrdals’ ongoing thinking on objectivity in the social sciences is helpful. The couple’s 1933 letter to the foundation betrayed little concern with the immediate future of scientific work in Germany, but Gunnar Myrdal long had been interested in the very question of scientific objectivity. He was critical of this romanticized metric, but also theorized on how to approach this goal as a social researcher.

Some years later, for example, the Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned him to direct a comprehensive study of black Americans, and in the published manuscript, he elaborated on this very topic. In a second appendix to An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), the author provided American social scientists with his perspective on how best to achieve objectivity in their work. This subject, though not new to Myrdal, had particular relevance in his analysis of American race relations where leading American scholarship on black Americans had maintained implicit and explicit anti-black bias, and had served to justify the discriminatory treatment of this minority group. And during the Second World War, the subject also had global significance since social scientists were trying to distinguish the level of scientism—and thus objectivity—of their scholarship in contrast to the work of Nazi scholars. In this vein, the author emphasized his long-standing perspective that the collection of empirical data did not necessarily make scholarship objective. On the contrary, he argued that a social researcher approximated this idealized metric closest when he acknowledged his own assumptions and made them explicit. Myrdal wrote in An American Dilemma: “There is no other device for excluding biases in social sciences than to face the valuations and to introduce them as explicitly stated, specific, and sufficiently concretized value premises” (1043).

By exposing the beliefs that shaped his research question, data organization, and analysis of data, for example, a white supremacist or Nazi scientist presumably would confess the anti-black or anti-Semitic sentiments that determined his research on black Americans or Jews. And regardless of how much empirical data he collected on these minority groups—and irrespectively of how well he organized and analyzed this data—his scholarship would be exposed for being prejudiced rather than objective.

Gunnar Myrdal’s reasoning on objectivity in the social sciences, along with the Rockefeller Foundation’s anxieties about the social sciences under the Third Reich, are useful as we think about the role of foundations and academics in the production of knowledge on minority groups during the Trump administration. More than ever, we need to be vigilant and forthright about the ways that anti-black, sexist, and xenophobic ideas seep into the manner in which we define research problems in the social sciences, how we organize and collect data on minority groups, along with our analyses, conclusions, and policy prescriptions on majority-minority group relations. And we need to be ready to expose ourselves and colleagues for producing prejudiced research, even if we are methodical and precise with our data collection. From their end, foundation staff will need to be able to detect bigoted research on minority groups when selecting and analyzing their grantees.

At the end of the day, it might seem that I am proposing a narrow mandate for foundations and academics. From another perspective, though, it is a vitally important responsibility. At a time when the White House is spewing sexist, anti-black, and xenophobic language on a regular basis and trying to confuse the public into believing that lies are anything else but falsehoods, civil society’s knowledge producers have critical roles to play as watchdogs of scientific truth. As it was in Gunnar Myrdal’s time, heightened self-awareness about social scientists’ potential for prejudice can be a critical tool of resistance against regimes trying to justify the discrimination and exclusion of minority groups.

-Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor.

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