Philanthropy’s Original Sin

From the Carnegie Corporation’s promotion of eugenics to—as Maribel Morey’s new book provocatively argues—its furthering of white supremacy, establishment philanthropy in America has much to answer for, and to resolve. It will have to do so in the coming years, in what will likely be an uncharitable cultural and political context.

In all of American establishment philanthropy’s “deafening clamor of self-approbation,” as one of us writes in The New Atlantis in 2013, “we rarely hear from these foundations about another undertaking that bears all the strategic hallmarks of American philanthropy’s much-touted successes. . . . that the first American foundations were deeply immersed in eugenics—the effort to promote the reproduction of the ‘fit’ and to suppress the reproduction of the ‘unfit.’”

This is philanthropy’s “original sin.” It was committed by, among others, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Carnegie Institute of Science, as well as the Rockefeller and Russell Sage Foundations. Recently, we did hear about it from Carnegie, which essentially confessed to and apologized for it; Rockefeller says it is “reckoning with” it, having launched an internal investigation into its role in the morally abhorrent project.

In White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation’s An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order, we now hear a well-researched argument from Maribel Morey that one of the first American foundations—Carnegie, founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911, right in the midst of the Progressive Era—later immersed itself in another evil misdeed: the justification of white rule over black people in the U.S.

If taking the risk of theoretically ranking evils, a morally repugnant furthering of white supremacy like the one described by Morey in White Philanthropy—when compared to philanthropy’s original sin of advancing eugenics—might perhaps be considered at least a philanthropic “mortal” sin.

Main Characters and the “Creed”

It needs to be noted that Morey actually researched and wrote White Philanthropy with a Carnegie-funded fellowship and with generous access to Carnegie and Rockefeller archival records—for which Carnegie and Rockefeller should get due credit, of course. A former history professor at Clemson University, she is founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences and a co-editor of the always-informative and -insightful HistPhil website.

Her White Philanthropy’s main character is Frederick Keppel, the president of Carnegie from 1923 to 1941. In the book, she documents how Keppel basically created the research template, secured funding, and provided a respected institutional home for—and selected Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, another main character, to be the director and author of—the major study of race in America that became An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Published in 1944, An American Dilemma authoritatively framed the country’s thinking about race relations for decades, and still does.

“Throughout the two volumes of An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal argues that anti-Black discriminatory policies and behavior run counter to Americans’ national egalitarian ideals, which he refers to as the ‘American Creed,’” as Morey summarizes it. “The author subsequently encourages his white American readers to meet such ideals.”

“Myrdal’s analysis of anti-Black discrimination,” according to Morey, “as a moral problem in the hearts and minds of white Americans, to be solved by urging these dominant white Americans to mobilize the national government to assimilate Black Americans into dominant white U.S. life, has resonated with many Americans,” including up to and through the civil-rights movement’s successes, as they were understood, and its aftermath.

More-Staunch Critics

In addition to those “adamant and vocal voices of white supremacy who found fault with An American Dilemma,” however, Morey writes, “[t]here were also those who were more staunch foes of white supremacy than Gunnar Myrdal and who viewed the book as justifying white rule in the United States.” Morey lists many and profiles some of these critics, who presaged much of that which the Black Power movement held in later decades, and what the leaders of that Black Power movement then believed about An American Dilemma. Prominently among them: Ralph Ellison, Oliver C. Cox, Herbert Aptheker, Doxey Wilkerson, Charles V. Hamilton, C. L. R. James, Stokely Carmichael, Samuel DuBois Cook, Harold Cruse, and, though mostly privately, W. E. B. Du Bois.

White Philanthropy, according to Morey, “amplifies the significance” of these critics’ perspectives. “It confirms with historical evidence their claims that An American Dilemma was an exercise in white Anglo-American domination,” she writes, “an effort to help solidify rather than to challenge white rule within and beyond the United States.”

Morey’s evidentiary confirmation of Carnegie’s and Keppel’s philanthropic role in the making of a white world order is based on looking at its grantmaking through what she calls a “global and imperial lens.” She writes that “communications between Keppel and his contacts in British Africa in the 1920s and 1930s,” as he and Carnegie were first exploring and then structuring and supporting two pre-American Dilemma major studies of race and race relations in what were the U.K.’s colonies there,

illustrate how this network of white men discussed anxieties about white Anglo-American rule from a transnational perspective. … [A]s archival material on Carnegie Corporation’s work outside of the United States exposes, Keppel developed a vision for international order along the color line during the span of his tenure at the corporation.

President Keppel’s transatlantic perspective on white Anglo-American rule makes it possible to piece together both his vision for white rule and Black subordination on both sides of the Atlantic and thus too his specific intentions for An American Dilemma. To this point, as this book clarifies, Keppel had found convincing J. H. Oldham’s 1925 memorandum stressing the threat of Black consciousness in Africa and the need for scientific research to aid white policymakers in stabilizing control on the continent.

Establishment philanthropy in America is, for the most part, unaccustomed to a level and type of scrutiny that concludes it’s sinfully racist and a “cancer” on the country.

Race, “Realism,” and Rule

Morey makes much of Oldham’s influence on Keppel, Carnegie, and the white world order she says they made. Oldham was a Scottish missionary and advisor to the British Colonial Office who considered himself to be a “realist,” as Morey characterizes it earlier in the book, “in colonial African administration.” He feared international black unity, as she tells it, and shared that fear in the cited 1925 memo to Keppel, which was seeking Carnegie support for research in Africa.

Keppel “was not taken aback by Oldham’s suggestion that white people should work toward stamping out Black people’s attempts toward a shared consciousness as Black people,” according to Morey. “On the contrary, Keppel” distributed the memo to Carnegie’s board members and used “it as a basis for developing a grantmaking program in Africa that, in line with the corporation’s priorities, would privilege the interests of white Anglo-Americas there.

“Even more,” she continues, “Keppel maintained Oldham as a key contact in years to come, suggesting sympathy in their views on the importance of white Anglo-American rule across the Atlantic and the need to address rising Black consciousness as a serious threat to it.”

This could be considered a lot of evidentiary weight being suggestively placed on the contact of Keppel and Oldham. Perhaps fairly. However, its placement could also seem consistent with what might be a quickness to impute ill motive to Keppel.

“Ill and Deficient,” and Illness of Motive

Speaking of intent, Gunnar Myrdal and his wife Alva “were part and parcel of conversations on eugenics in 1920s and 1930s Europe” and “supported the sterilization of the ‘mentally ill and deficient’ on ‘social grounds,’” Morey reports, quoting from the Myrdals’ 1934 Kris i befolkningsfrågan (Crisis in the Population Question), which enthusiastically applied the new science of demography. They “underscored that their claims about the root causes of social group differences reflected the findings of leading scholars across the globe,” she writes in White Philanthropy, and their

… engagement with discussions on eugenics would showcase itself in An American Dilemma. For example, and again under the assumption that the solution to the problem of Black Americans in the United States ultimately called for the erasure of Blackness, Gunnar Myrdal included a section in An American Dilemma titled, “The Case for Controlling the Negro Birth Rate.” Here, Myrdal analogized Black Americans to the “mentally ill and deficient” by arguing that many Black Americans are “so ignorant and poor that they are not desirable parents and cannot offer their children a reasonably good home.” Taking for granted that no social policy “would be able to lift the standards of these people immediately,” Myrdal supported “the argument for sterilization of destitute Negroes.” In this way, Myrdal in An American Dilemma—like the couple in Kris—justified eugenics on the grounds that certain people or certain groups of people were incapable of parenting well.

Perhaps cutting Myrdal more moral slack than Keppel, Morey continues,

In An American Dilemma, however, Myrdal ultimately would push away from recommending sterilization as part of his proposed national program to solve the “Negro problem,” if only because “such proposals, if they are made at all, are almost repugnant to the average white American in the South and the North as to the Negro.” …

An American Dilemma would entertain the possibility of eugenics programs targeted at Black Americans, though only as a temporary measure for expediting the ultimate goal of decreasing the presence of Blackness and the societal ills Myrdal associated with Black people.

Current Questions and Contexts

Which brings us back to the “the strategic hallmarks of American philanthropy’s much-touted successes” referenced in The New Atlantis in 2013—the ones that brought us philanthropy’s “original sin” of eugenics.

There were overarching concerns about discovering and addressing “root causes,” with collaborative elite partners if and when possible, of course; strong desires to rely on expert-gathered data, on science, on the truth; and wishes to work closely with those who make and implement such informed policy in government, be it African colonial or American democratic. There was proud progressivism, in other words, from its progenitors and early practitioners.

Which, to finish, brings us back to Morey’s more-staunch critics of An American Dilemma. Their thinking has never left us, of course, but White Philanthropy helps bring it back to the fore—where it may join with that of others, having worldviews that are both social-justice progressive and populist conservative.

In the context of establishment philanthropy in America, important questions regarding the dominant mindsets governing its grantmaking right now are being raised by both progressives and populists. Intellectual agitators and actual activists on the left and the right share a deep distrust of almost all major American institutions, viewing them as vehicles for elite privilege. The list of these institutions is becoming longer and quite familiar; well-endowed, arrogantly top-down, policy-oriented philanthropy, with all that it does and either actually or seemingly represents, is definitely rising on it.

As White Philanthropy author Morey herself recently said, “big philanthropy seems to be moving increasingly into the public sphere, as opposed to the more traditional charitable sphere. That’s generating a renewal of this debate, over whether we want that kind of power in a few hands with little formal accountability.” Yes, it is. See current talk like this about large foundations from J.D. Vance: “These are fundamentally cancers on American society, but they pretend to be charities.”

Carnegie, its president Keppel, and Myrdal framed An American Dilemma. Morey’s White Philanthropy presents much evidence and an argument that they and the project were, well, white supremacist. Establishment philanthropy in America is, for the most part, unaccustomed to a level and type of scrutiny that concludes it’s sinfully racist and a “cancer” on the country. When it has attracted such negative attention in the past, there have been non-venial consequences, including in the public policy governing its very structure.

With quick, cross-ideological imputation of ill motive back, big philanthropy has its own dilemma—one with which it will definitely have to deal in the coming years.