Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism

Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism

Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism

Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism

Synopsis

At first glance, the Ford Foundation and the black power movement would make an unlikely partnership. After the Second World War, the renowned Foundation was the largest philanthropic organization in the United States and was dedicated to projects of liberal reform. Black power ideology, which promoted self-determination over color-blind assimilation, was often characterized as radical and divisive. But Foundation president McGeorge Bundy chose to engage rather than confront black power's challenge to racial liberalism through an ambitious, long-term strategy to foster the "social development" of racial minorities. The Ford Foundation not only bankrolled but originated many of the black power era's hallmark legacies: community control of public schools, ghetto-based economic development initiatives, and race-specific arts and cultural organizations.

In Top Down, Karen Ferguson explores the consequences of this counterintuitive and unequal relationship between the liberal establishment and black activists and their ideas. In essence, the white liberal effort to reforge a national consensus on race had the effect of remaking racial liberalism from the top down--a domestication of black power ideology that still flourishes in current racial politics. Ultimately, this new racial liberalism would help foster a black leadership class--including Barack Obama--while accommodating the intractable inequality that first drew the Ford Foundation to address the "race problem."

Excerpt

On August 2, 1966, McGeorge Bundy made his first major policy statement as Ford Foundation president in a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia. Entitled “Action for Equal Opportunity,” Bundy’s address was a clarion call for a new era at the Ford Foundation, by far the largest and most influential philanthropy in the world. Bundy declared that the Foundation’s most prestigious and costly programs would experiment boldly by dealing with the ongoing black freedom struggle, especially black power’s challenge to the nation. Pegged for Foundation president in 1965, the year of both the Voting Rights Act and the Watts riot, Bundy, along with his program officers and the Foundation’s trustees, was keenly aware that the legislative victories of the civil rights movement had not solved what he still called the “Negro problem” of black assimilation into American society. In fact, as the struggle for equal opportunity had turned from “rights to reality,” Bundy saw that “the agenda for the immediate future [was] as full and pressing as it [had] been at any time in the past.” Over the next ten years, the Foundation would ramp up its spending on “rights for minorities,” granting more than $100 million in this area from 1965 to 1969 alone, in amounts reaching 40 percent of the entire budget for domestic programs by 1970.

Making a speech about equal opportunity to the National Urban League, a venerable and unimpeachably mainstream and moderate black organization, was hardly controversial; however, what Bundy did next was. In a deeply counterintuitive move he sought to relegitimize racial liberalism’s promise of color-blind opportunity and inclusion, not by attacking black power’s repudiation of this American creed but by directly engaging black activists and their call for separatism and self-determination. As a result of Bundy’s contrariness, the Ford Foundation played a pivotal role in establishing many of the hallmark legacies of the black power era, such as ghetto-based economic development initiatives, university black studies programs, multicultural and “affective” school curricula, and race-specific arts and cultural organizations.

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