New Works in the Field

MALDEF, the Ford Foundation and the Politics of Patronage

Editors’ Note: Benjamin Márquez introduces his new book, The Politics of Patronage: Lawyers, Philanthropy and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1967-2000 (University of Texas Press, 2021).

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is one of the best-known Latino/a political organizations. The scope of its involvement in Latino/a politics is unsurpassed. MALDEF lawyers have represented almost every major Latino/a political organization from the United Farm Workers Union to the Association of Mexican American Educators. It collaborates with non-Hispanic public interest law organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, National Women’s Law Center and National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. Its lawyers have represented Latino/as in scores of coalitions, task forces and consortiums yet it is not widely known that this venerable organization was created by the Ford Foundation in 1968 with a $2,200,000 grant. 

My most recent book, The Politics of Patronage: Lawyers, Philanthropy and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1967-2000, is the first scholarly analysis of this important organization and the first to examine the way that philanthropic gifts and grants shape the course of Latino/a advocacy more generally. My goal is to understand the way that non-Latino/a institutions determine how Latino/a identities and interests are articulated in the public sphere. Sponsored organizations like MALDEF are perceived by the general public and the media as community leaders although they have no members and are only accountable to their funders. I was also deeply interested in the way that MALDEF determined which of the many injustices plaguing the Latino/a population were given litigation priority. 

The Ford Foundation recruited a group of Mexican American attorneys and political activists and under its supervision and guidance, this group wrote MALDEF’s first funding proposal, created a bureaucratic structure, and then put the plan into action. Although MALDEF’s creation coincided with the most tumultuous years of the Chicano Movement, the groundwork for the Ford Foundation’s racial justice initiatives was laid down years before. As early as 1949, Ford officials concluded that racism and denial of civil liberties were the two greatest threats to social stability by “swelling the ranks of malcontents who constitute the seedbed for undemocratic ideologies.”  Those forces would keep Mexican Americans at the margins of society and support the narrative that the Anglo population was incorrigibly prejudiced.  Ford officials were confident that American society had the capacity to assimilate Mexican Americans as it had white ethnic immigrants of the past, but without their direct intervention, the process would take many generations. In their view, Mexican Americans were likely to retain their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness but eventually assimilate to the point where their political values and attitudes would mirror those of the larger society. 

In the 1960s, the Ford Foundation became a major force in American race relations by investing large amounts of money in organizations specializing in political participation, leadership development, education, advocacy, and economic development. It funded organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, Native American Rights Fund, Women’s Law Fund, Legal Action Center, Public Advocates, and a long list of others. Ford left a lasting imprint on Mexican American and Latinx politics by creating and sustaining groups like the National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS), Spanish Speaking Unity Council, Mexican American Unity Council, Chicanos Por La Causa, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the National Puerto Rican Voter Participation Project. Following the Ford Foundation’s lead, other foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Carnegie Corporation of New York began investing in similar projects. 

The kinds of grants and gifts that sustained groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund had a major impact by “channeling” Latino/a politics through the creation and continued support of politically moderate organizations that worked in and represented the community. Philanthropy arbitrated between winners and losers in the competition for community leadership and the way minority interests are articulated in the public sphere. Gifts and grants funneled money to organizations working through institutional avenues of reform, with only a small fraction going to organizations that engaged in lobbying or any form of contentious politics. Scholars Craig Jenkins and Abigail Halcli, for instance, have documented a drop in foundation support when civil rights groups became involved in contentious issues like school busing and affirmative action.[1] These more radical elements were left with the difficult task of raising money in a low-income community and grappling with the volatilities of social movement politics. As I show in The Politics of Patronage, organizations like MALDEF absorbed talent and socialized a new generation of leaders into modes and norms of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. These individuals, in turn, presented themselves as community leaders who could point to concrete gains that may not have occurred without their work. Groups favored by philanthropy such as MALDEF, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, National Council of la Raza (now UnidosUS) and Chicanos por la Causa became what Alice O’Connor calls legitimators, institution builders and professionalizers whose job it is to shape “…mainstream values and institutions through a more expansive vision of civil and social rights and the role of government in protecting and enforcing them.”[2]  

The impact of philanthropy is especially pronounced when it comes to legal advocacy. Lawyers can serve as important resources for social movements by defending their leaders and protecting activists from harassment, but little compels them to do so. Lawyers representing Latino/as can shape strategy and decide how to proceed, often without the consent of the individuals whose interests are at stake. There has been little research on the role activist lawyers play in social movements other than to view them as a tool or resource. In practice, lawyers can supplant grassroots leaders, promote their own status and goals, and funnel popular discontent into institutional processes that consume a movement’s time, money, and disruptive potential.[3] As legal scholar Joel Handler has argued, once the struggle moves into the courts, “the membership is confronted with a mysterious procedure and trade language; the specialists take over.”[4]

The Politics of Patronage contributes to the literature on politics and philanthropy, identity and social movements by analyzing the work of MALDEF attorneys when representing Mexican Americans. It also speaks to the troubling rise of externally funded or staff-run interest groups in American politics. Their lack of a membership base raises questions about representation and the exercise of power, issues of particular importance for racial and ethnic politics. Civil rights organizations first emerged from deep-seated anger over racial injustice, but the most enduring of those groups were those that secured external funding and accepted the constraints that go with it. MALDEF is one of them. Its lawyers are full time professional activists. They enjoy income, job security and benefits few of their clients or other activists possess. The experience they gain can lead to opportunities to litigate in the Federal courts or even the Supreme Court, opportunities that propel them to the highest levels of professional development and stature.

External funding allows staff organizations to avoid the problems that can destroy membership-based groups. MALDEF’s lawyers thus do not have to grapple with the conflict-laden web of personal relationships, organizing campaigns, internal deliberations, elections, and the hard work of mobilizing a grassroots constituency that typify membership organizations. Their hierarchical organization maximizes efficiency but limits accountability to outside input. Staff and funders set the group’s goals and strategies and rarely include clients in the decision-making process. Perhaps the most significant episodes pitting community demands for legal representation against the Ford Foundation’s expectations came during the 1960s over the issue of police violence. Community leaders called on MALDEF lawyers to defend Mexican Americans suffering from police abuse, especially those engaged in labor organizing and political protest. Ford Foundation officials were alarmed by the resources MALDEF was investing in defending activists when its intent was to create a legal reform organization and expand Constitutional protections to Latino/as, not defend individuals. They quickly intervened and told MALDEF lawyers to stop their legal defense work, which the lawyers did. 

The Ford Foundation created powerful organizations to represent Mexican Americans that were not accountable to community members or grassroots organizations. Yet if it is the case that Ford’s intervention directed financial and technical assistance to reformist, professionally run organizations, does this necessarily entail that it imposed alien values on a population that possessed other goals and values? The answer is no. Despite ominous overtones of cooptation and manipulation frequently associated with reformist grant making, its goals and tactics are not unknown to Mexican American politics. MALDEF was designed as a legal reform organization, one that would expand the rights and protections guaranteed in the Constitution to Latino/as. Once these guarantees were well established, individuals would be free to find their place in the social hierarchy. In this model, Latino/as would follow the path of assimilation established by white ethnic groups decades earlier. Some of the oldest and best-known Latino civil rights organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens or the American GI Forum had long held that change through the mechanisms of government like the courts were appropriate and would eventually lead to expanded opportunities. Activists affiliated with these groups believed that a combination of participation in public affairs, persuasion and lobbying would eventually lead to social and economic incorporation into mainstream society. Although this vision of American life has been and continues to be challenged, the values of assimilation and incorporation inform an important current of Mexican American political thought. However, the foundations, corporations, and the wealthy individuals that give to Latino/a advocacy organizations do amplify the voice, standing and prestige of reformism.

Resource poor populations are especially vulnerable to financial agenda setting that confers legitimacy and grants longevity to those who engage in institutional reform and compromise. The introduction of outside money into Mexican American politics marked a turning point in Latino political advocacy. The claims made and policy positions taken by Latino/a leaders are now as much a product of community needs as of philanthropic interests. In a political culture of competing voices and visions for the future this influx of resources conferred significant advantages to organizations operating within existing institutions of law, civil society, and the market as appropriate vehicles to realize social change.The Ford Foundation’s intervention amplified the voice of moderation in the Latino/a community relative to those advocating contentious and disruptive modes of resistance. It elevated the status and power of groups like MALDEF over those deemed counterproductive or dangerous. These financially stable organizations operate independently of community control or influence. Today these groups and their leaders are the principal voices of the Latinx civil rights establishment.

-Benjamin Márquez

Benjamin Marquez is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research interests include social movements, urban politics, and minority politics. His has published numerous articles and books on the relationship between race, political power, social identities, public and political incorporation, including LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization (University of Texas Press, 1993) and Democratizing Texas Politics:  Race, Identity, and Mexican American Empowerment, 1945-2002 (University of Texas Press, 2014). His most recent book is The Politics of Patronage: Lawyers, Philanthropy and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (University of Texas Press, 2021).

[1] Craig Jenkins and Abigail Halcli, “Grassrooting the System? The Development and Impact of Social Movement Philanthropy,” in Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, ed., Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 253-255.

[2] Alice O’Connor, “Foundations, Social Movements, and the Contradictions of Liberal Philanthropy.” In Helmut K. Anheier, David C. Hammack, eds., American Foundations Roles and Contributions (Washington, D.C.:  Brookings Institution Press, 2010), 332-3.

[3] Gerald P. Lopez, Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s Vision of Progressive Law Practice. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992); Joan Roelofs, “Foundations and Collaboration,” Critical Sociology, 33:3 (2007), 479-504.

[4] Joel F. Handler, Social Movements and the Legal System: A Theory of Law Reform and Social Change (New York: Academic Press, 1978), 33.

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