Editors’ Note: Karen Ferguson adds her perspective to HistPhil‘s forum on the Tax Reform Act (TRA) of 1969. The controversy surrounding the campaign to decentralize the New York City school system in 1968, and especially the pilot project in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, helped fuel Congressional opposition to philanthropic activism that saw expression in the TRA. Ferguson sees striking parallels between the Ford Foundation’s leadership in that campaign and the recent engagement of Ford’s president Darren Walker in an effort to decentralize the Rikers Island prison complex—and in the clash between black power and racial liberalism that defined both campaigns.
Last September Angela Davis, veteran radical of the 1960s black freedom movement and longtime prison abolitionist, enjoined a meeting of justice activists to protest against recent remarks by the Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker. Davis was responding to an essay on the Foundation’s blog in which Walker criticized prison abolitionists, counting them among other global and domestic examples of political “extremism” for lacking “nuance” in their rejection of a New York City-sanctioned plan that he had helped to create to replace the notorious Rikers Island prison complex with a handful of decentralized, state-of-the-art jails. Davis called for a demonstration outside the Foundation’s Midtown headquarters, and urged all present and former “Ford Fellows” – student and faculty recipients of Foundation minority fellowships – to sign an open letter already endorsed by 100 of their peers protesting Walker’s vilification of this latter-day abolitionism and the “research-driven” case for it. The resulting demonstration at the Foundation led to a public confrontation in which the Foundation called police on the protesters while over 150 more signatories clamored to endorse the Ford Fellows’ letter against Walker’s stance. In response Walker published a conciliatory blog post but didn’t really back down. He legitimized his stance on prison reform as a black man who, like so many other African Americans, had family members in jail. And he remains steadfast in upholding the Foundation’s historic mission; as he put it recently, “at Ford, we are system-reformers, not system-destroyers.”
This episode hearkens back to a remarkably similar conflict between the Foundation and black power grantees 50 years ago when the Ford Foundation’s reformist goal of improving public schooling through decentralization of the New York City Board of Education led to the foundation’s support and then disavowal of activists hoping to scrap another public system that, like prisons, exemplify endemic racial inequality. In the wake of that episode Ford found other, less controversial ways to promote its vision of racial equality, of which the “Ford Fellows” program has been among its longest lasting and farthest reaching. Today, when inequality is a fundamental social concern that includes and stretches beyond race, the protesting Fellows’ willingness to bite the hand that’s fed them raises questions of whether the Foundation’s half-century-old strategy to address racial inequality has been strained to its limit.
In 1966 the Foundation’s new president, McGeorge Bundy, forged a novel path for philanthropy in the United States. Responding to black power and its critique of an affluent U.S. society built on a foundation of racial exploitation, he turned the Foundation’s primary domestic focus to issues of what it called “Negro equality.” Bundy warned that the challenge of black power threatened a “true social revolution at home.” Believing that it was his Foundation’s unique role “to have the patience, and the skill, to channel this rage, and…to be able to take a deep breath and ignore the bluster,” he averred that with Ford’s help “the country of Abraham Lincoln” would “inevitably … right these ancient wrongs, and … by peaceful means.”
The Foundation’s support of school decentralization marked the first and boldest of its experiments in institutional reform for racial equality. Bundy was appointed by Mayor John Lindsay to be the chair and driving force of his Panel on Decentralization. Through those auspices Bundy and Foundation staff devised the City’s plan to break up New York’s behemoth school system into smaller units. The Foundation’s schools experts also hoped to leverage black power’s call for community control of local schools to bolster their case for decentralization by funding pilot demonstrations of this model in impoverished, non-white New York neighborhoods, including the infamous one in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
The Foundation recoiled when the black power activists who ran the pilots interpreted community control as a broad mandate to effect self-determination free from any broader institutional control. What Foundation officers had intended as a lever towards more effective ghetto schools instead ignited a full-blown schools crisis, including three citywide strikes that closed the schools for months and pitted largely Jewish teachers against the black community. Not only have historians shown that this episode sparked the realignment of the city’s politics along racial lines, but the Foundation’s interference in the schools also led to enormous scrutiny of its actions by lawmakers, helping to fuel the animus that led to the foundation regulations within the 1969 Tax Reform Act. No wonder then that by the time of the 1968 strikes the always conflict-averse Foundation was already well on its way to abandoning the community control demonstrations and their “extremist” black champions.
There are striking parallels between these two episodes, fifty years apart. In both cases, the Foundation became directly involved in institutional reform through decentralization in order to address inequality. In the Rikers case, much like Bundy became involved in New York City’s school politics, Walker sits on the Commission created by municipal leaders to close Rikers and replace it with a number of “more humane” community-based local jails. While Walker does not chair the Commission, it includes chief executives of a number of legacy Foundation grantees co-created by Ford during the Bundy era to promote racial equality, including the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the Vera Institute for Justice, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF. Furthermore, like Bundy’s schools activism and its connection to his repositioning of the Foundation to focus on racial equality, Walker’s participation on the Commission follows his 2015 announcement that henceforth the Foundation would devote all its grantmaking to address the causes and consequences of inequality writ large. Finally, both presidents experimented with partnering with militant and even radical activists to further their vision for systems reform, even when their ultimate goals differed fundamentally. In Walker’s case, in 2016 the Foundation announced a $40 million initiative to support the Movement for Black Lives – the network of fledgling organizations that originally coalesced so effectively as #blacklivesmatter to protest the police killing of black people around the nation.
Among these striking parallels and similarities, there is a major difference between these two episodes. The school decentralization/community control debate happened between the Foundation and grassroots activists who had no purchase in the U.S. establishment. Today, the case for prison abolition comes from the highest reaches of the academy and its social science faculty.
The Foundation inadvertently played a large part in mainstreaming the research that undergirds the new abolitionism. After the fallout from the Foundation’s experiment collaborating with community activists in the 1960s, Ford’s reformers began to focus on developing their own black leaders. Arguably the most impactful and longest lasting aspect of this strategy was and is its expansive Fellowship programs for minority university students and faculty, which has played a direct role in the creation of an expanded black and Latino professional class in the United States, as well as diversifying the professoriate. This model of elite affirmative action became the dominant institutional response to black power nationwide, demonstrating that the nation was living up to its egalitarian ideals while ignoring or masking the inequalities created by ongoing racial and economic exploitation.
In our age of inequality, there is an emerging critique of so-called “progressive neoliberalism,” in which this elite multiculturalism plays a major role. And in a striking paradox, the very minority scholars whom the Ford Foundation have funded over the last fifty years to diversify the upper reaches of U.S. society have provided among the most damning assessments of the ongoing racial exploitation practiced by American institutions. For example, Ford Fellows count among their ranks some of the most important thinkers on prison abolition and the larger movement for racial justice – former fellows such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, Joy James, Elizabeth Hinton, and Barbara Ransby, who have held faculty positions at Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, and Northwestern, among other prestigious posts. And Michelle Alexander, whose New Jim Crow more than any other work of scholarship exposed the world to racialized mass incarceration in the United States and popularized the abolition movement, was named Senior Ford Fellow in 2015.
In short, there are signs even from its beneficiaries that elite multiculturalism no longer works to paper over the enormous fissures in U.S. society. But Walker remains faithful to this strategy as part of his larger campaign to address social inequality by reforming the national institutions created by it, including philanthropy itself. Recently, for example, he weighed in on protests against elite art institutions and their willingness to launder the wealth of military contractor and Big Pharma benefactors by criticizing the “distorted economic system” in the world of philanthropic cultural funding “that protects and promotes inequality.” However, his solution to this injustice comes straight out of McGeorge Bundy’s playbook. He calls for diversifying these leading museums’ boards, staffs, and cultural offerings, even while acknowledging the “irony” that a major target of the protests, the Whitney Museum, already “stands out for its diversity,” and that “there is probably no museum in America that has done more to transform itself” in that respect. Former Ford Fellow Jasmine Salter, a leader in the prison abolition protest, might call Walker’s museums approach a “strategic deployment of identity politics to legitimize institutions of oppression,” just as she did Walker’s self defense of his prison reform stance. The fact that someone like Salter, a beneficiary of Ford’s systems reform for racial equality, is delivering this critique suggests that racial diversity, in this age of inequality, may no longer serve as the symbol it once did of the inclusionary promise of institutional life in the United States.
Karen Ferguson is a Professor of Urban Studies and History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is the author of Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power and the Transformation of Racial Liberalism (Penn Press, 2013).