New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and Inequality

Behind the Scenes of WHITE PHILANTHROPY

Editors’ Note: HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey introduces her new book, White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation’s An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order (2021), and underscores the research methodology at the foundation of the book’s historical narrative. 

Earlier this month, my first book, White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation’s An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order (2021), came out in print. This project has been long in the making, begun even before we co-founded this blog in 2015. Thinking through how I would want to introduce White Philanthropy to our community here on HistPhil, I have kept in mind our readership and especially fellow scholars of U.S. foundations. Because among us, I think we could do more to expose, discuss, and debate not only our research conclusions on the various roles of U.S. foundations in local, regional, national, and global communities, but also our research methodologies. This is because we have so much to learn from each other on how we go about investigating these organizations. After all, the varying research methodologies we embrace have consequences for our final conclusions about these organizations and the powers we argue that they have wielded and continue to wield as funders.

In this post, then, I first introduce the central argument in White Philanthropy and then underscore the research methods I embraced in producing the book.

The Argument

White Philanthropy starts by underscoring the popularity of the text at the center of the book: Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). When An American Dilemma was published in 1944, more than 65 U.S. newspapers and magazines ran glowing reviews about it. Written by Myrdal, a Swedish economist, who would eventually win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, An American Dilemma outlines the many facets of white Americans’ anti-Black discrimination from employment, housing, voting, and police and court practices to patterns of direct violence and intimidation such as lynchings. It furthermore relays that these anti-Black discriminatory policies and behaviors run counter to Americans’ national egalitarian ideals, the “American Creed,” and encourages its U.S. readers to correct their anti-Black discrimination to meet such ideals by welcoming Black Americans’ further assimilation into white U.S. life.

To this day, An American Dilemma remains one of the most expensive studies of race ever conducted in the United States and is still regarded as a defining text shaping how many Americans discuss racial equality. According to U.S. sociologist Aldon D. Morris, for example, An American Dilemma is “the most famous and influential study of race every produced.” Further noting the continued influence of An American Dilemma in U.S. life and referring to former president Barack Obama’s Martin Luther King Day speech in 2008, U.S. historian Thomas J. Sugrue then commented that “Obama’s high-minded words echo those of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, whose 1944 book An American Dilemma still defines the basic dynamics of racial politics in America.”

White Philanthropy unearths the global origin story of An American Dilemma, illuminating the colonial African links between An American Dilemma and two earlier studies—The Poor White Problem in South Africa (1932) and An African Survey (1938), also funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York—illustrating how all three studies were, in fact, part of Carnegie Corporation’s funding of social science research in the 1920s and 1930s meant to help white policymakers in the Anglo-American world address perceived problems in their governance of Black people.

Analyzing the funder-grantee relationships throughout these three studies, including the relationship between Carnegie Corporation and Gunnar Myrdal, White Philanthropy shows how Myrdal ultimately complemented his funder’s intentions for the project by keeping white Americans as his principal audience and guiding them towards a national policy program on Black Americans that would keep intact white domination.

Looking to Carnegie Corporation’s motivations for commissioning the work, White Philanthropy details how the organization long had been invested in privileging the interests of white people in the Anglo-American world, with leading board member and former personal secretary to Andrew Carnegie, James Bertram, reminding fellow board members, years after Carnegie’s passing in 1919, that the philanthropist had aimed primarily to aid “communities of whites”:

Any money which Mr. Carnegie gave to the [British] Colonies was given for the reason that they were communities of whites. Without any documentary line of distinction ever having been drawn Carnegie Corporation has followed this policy in fact. The reason that I personally was interested in having the sphere of action of Carnegie Corporation extended to Kenya and the other high tableland country of East Africa and to South Africa is that they are, or at least are potentially, white communities. Although the Corporation has provided money which will be spent on the natives the subventions are in aid of the educational problems of white communities.

Within this organizational structure to privilege the needs of white communities, Carnegie Corporation President Frederick Keppel—who led the organization from 1923 to 1941—incorporated his own affinity for financing the social sciences as tools for helping white policymakers in the Anglo-American world address perceived problems in their governance of the white-Black color line. In this spirit, he financed The Poor White Problem in South Africa (1932), An African Survey (1938), and subsequently, An American Dilemma (1944)—all cooperative studies in the social sciences geared towards helping white policymakers in their respective geographies better manage white supremacy.

As director of the Corporation’s U.S. study, Gunnar Myrdal largely complemented his funder’s intentions by providing a national policy program on Black Americans that would help guide white policymakers across the U.S. to stabilize white domination. And Myrdal did so by maintaining white Americans as his target audience and by providing them with a roadmap on how to make their perceived problem of Black people disappear. Underscoring the value of Black Americans’ assimilation into white U.S. life, for example, Myrdal stressed in An American Dilemma that he and his team “assume that it is to the advantage of American Negroes as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.” This was, indeed, Myrdal’s long-term goal with his national policy program. As he reasoned in An American Dilemma, he was simply helping white Americans visualize, through means that they found morally acceptable, what they actually wanted to accomplish with Black Americans: their full eradication. “If the Negroes could be eliminated from America or greatly decreased in numbers, this would meet the whites’ approval—provided that it could be accomplished by means which are also approved.” One such approved means, Myrdal explained, was the full assimilation of Black Americans into white U.S. life, to the point that Blackness ceased to exist: “Therefore, the dominant American valuation is that the Negro should be eliminated from the American scene, but slowly,” at a rate and speed pleasing to white Americans.

By successfully assimilating Black Americans into white U.S. life, Myrdal furthermore stressed in An American Dilemma that white Americans would be illustrating their moral leadership on the world stage and thus solidifying their global leadership. “The coming difficult decades will be America’s turn in the endless sequence of main actors on the world stage,” Myrdal wrote. “For perhaps several decades, the whites will still hold the lead, and America will be the most powerful white nation.” For Myrdal and Carnegie Corporation alike, international order rested on white Anglo-Americans’ continued ability to dominate effectively.

Providing this international context to An American Dilemma, White Philanthropy argues that An American Dilemma is less about racial equality in the United States as many Americans would like to remember the study, and more—as other Americans such as Oliver C. Cox, Stokely Carmichael, and Charles Hamilton long speculated—about strengthening white Anglo-American control on both sides of the Atlantic.

Moving on from the book’s central argument, this next section explains the research methods I embraced, leading to this reframing of An American Dilemma’s significance within and beyond the United States.

Data Collection on the Grantee and Funder

In 2007, I launched archival research on An American Dilemma with a multi-layered approach by focusing on Gunnar Myrdal and Carnegie Corporation both independently from, and in dialogue with, each other. To better appreciate Myrdal as an individual thinker, for example, I decided to learn the Swedish language so that I could better comprehend his intellectual roots before becoming director of Carnegie Corporation’s study of Black Americans in the 1930s. In doing so, I have been able to connect Myrdal’s arguments in An American Dilemma with his and his wife Alva Reimer Myrdal’s other works at the time, which are still only accessible in Swedish, such as: Kris i befolkningsfrågan (1934) and Kontakt med Amerika (1941). Learning Swedish also has facilitated research trips to Sweden over the past decade, including a year as a Fulbright scholar at Stockholm University’s Sociology Department and general engagements with the Myrdals’ archival collections and academic discussions in Sweden on the Myrdals, the welfare state (whose genesis the Myrdals are intrinsically linked to), race, immigration, and philanthropy. By learning Gunnar Myrdal’s first language early on in this book project, I thus necessarily began to understand him as a person whose ideas were rooted in particular times and places, including early 20th century United States, Sweden, and, more broadly, Europe.

Similarly, I started investigating Carnegie Corporation of New York—which commissioned and funded Myrdal for its study of Black Americans—with an intention to take on a slow and methodical approach to investigating its files. After visiting Carnegie Corporation’s archives at Columbia University for several exploratory visits reading through boxes, files, folders, and microfilms on its specific funding of An American Dilemma, I thus started the formal research process by outlining the long-term and general scope of my investigation of the organization.

If I wanted to understand Carnegie Corporation as a whole—and its motivations for commissioning this study of Black Americans and for inviting Myrdal to direct it—I decided it was most prudent to start my analysis of the Corporation since its founding in 1911 and with a bird’s eye view of the organization through the subsequent decades. In this way, I imagined gaining a better appreciation for the organization that Frederick Keppel, who commissioned Myrdal to direct the study of Black Americans, inherited when he became its president in the 1920s. This was, after all, the institutional context from which Keppel would work and, ultimately, would finance and commission a study of Black Americans.

I thus began my archival research of Carnegie Corporation at the beginning, with steel titan Andrew Carnegie’s founding of the Corporation in 1911. First, I read through the organization’s annual reports and board minutes through to the 1940s. With this general overview of the organization, I then detected key individuals within the organization, their advisers, and grantees whose published and unpublished papers I should research further. I subsequently spent years reading through their collections, boxes, folders, and publications. In this way, I traced networks of individuals at Carnegie Corporation—and their own networks of advisers and grantees—who shaped the organization’s priorities throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. And one thing I learned at Carnegie Corporation’s archives is that “wasting time” by reading through entire boxes and seemingly irrelevant files, beyond the immediate geographical or topical focus of the initial research, is worthwhile. Most memorably, I had a hunch one day that the Corporation was equating Black Americans with Africans in the 1920s and 1930s—and with this hunch, I started reading the organization’s files on its funding practices in the British Empire. It was because of that very hunch in the archives that I was then able to trace just how the Corporation’s U.S. study on Black Americans related to its prior funding of the cooperative social sciences in British Africa. Then following Keppel’s own network of advisers in South Africa and London, I gained an international perspective and appreciation for his reasons as president of Carnegie Corporation for commissioning a study of Black Americans in the 1930s and, so too, for inviting Myrdal to direct it.

 Analysis of the Funder-Grantee Relationship

While appreciating both Myrdal and Carnegie Corporation as independent beings before they joined as grantee and funder of the study of Black Americans, a next step in my research process was to better appreciate and understand the Corporation’s and Myrdal’s relationship as funder and grantee while Myrdal directed the project in the late 1930s and 1940s. Because funders can have their own intentions for projects, but they necessarily exist in dialogue with grantees.

As I see it, to understand the funder-grantee relationship is to view it as a constant and fluid dialogue between funders and grantees as they navigate their varying expectations and assumptions about each other’s roles in a project. In this spirit, White Philanthropy not only underscores where and how Carnegie Corporation and Myrdal were in sync with each other as funder and grantee, but also where their perspectives diverged. For example, White Philanthropy illustrates how Keppel assumed that the white South was critical for a national program on Black Americans, while Myrdal presumed that only the most powerful white Americans—which he categorized as white Northerners and New Dealers—could bring about such a policy program. That said, both men were in sync in their intentions to keep white Americans as the principal audience for the Corporation’s study of Black Americans and, in the process, to offer white Americans a national policy program that could help them solidify white Anglo-American rule in the U.S. and, more broadly, globally.


And so, HistPhil readers, this is all to say that I hope that you pick up a copy of White Philanthropy. The book indeed challenges many Americans’ understandings of the significance of An American Dilemma in the U.S. and globally. As I note in the book’s introduction, one major hope is that White Philanthropy disrupts contemporary public discussions about racial equality and white supremacy in the United States today. Because we Americans need to acknowledge that our national conversations about racial equality—still so shaped by An American Dilemma—continue to be intrinsically connected to a project among white funders, policymakers, and their advisers during the early twentieth century to create a world order led by white Anglo-Americans. For a more egalitarian future in the intrinsically connected national and international levels, I suggest finding inspiration—not in such texts such as An American Dilemma, which are only thinly disguised efforts to continue white Anglo-American rule—but rather in those individuals such as Oliver C. Cox, Stokely Carmichael, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others who resisted the making of this white world order.

Furthermore, I also hope that readers will appreciate the research methodology behind the making of White Philanthropy, both in its data collection on Myrdal and Carnegie Corporation before they came together as funder and grantee and, once funder and grantee, on how they navigated this relationship and ultimately produced, in dialogue with each other, a project to keep intact white Anglo-American domination within and beyond the United States. Indeed, Carnegie Corporation’s role as funder in shaping knowledge production in the social sciences on white and Black people in the U.S. and British Africa during the early 20th century was subtle and, yet too, as White Philanthropy illustrates, ever-present and consequential.

-Maribel Morey

A co-founder of HistPhil, Maribel Morey is the founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences, a nonprofit centering the work of Global Majority scholars in the social sciences and neighboring fields. Morey has a PhD in History from Princeton University and a JD from NYU Law School. For a list of Morey’s publications, interviews, grants, fellowships, and awards, please follow this link

4 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes of WHITE PHILANTHROPY

  1. The author ends her narrative at the end of the1960’s, just as colonialism in Africa was receding and the civil rights movement in the US was gathering speed. Do events of the last fifty years provide additional perspective on the arguments advanced by Carnegie/Keppel/Myrdal, on one side and the “Black power” advocates, on the other?


    • Dear Leslie, thank you too for your comment. I think you’ll appreciate the final chapter of *White Philanthropy* which goes into the 1960s. See Ch. 10, Section 2 “Keppel’s Vision for National and International Order Confronts Inherent Limitations.” Within this section, see specifically pp. 235-245.


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