U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Race & Postwar Liberalism Interview Series, Part III: Karen Ferguson

This week is the final interview in our series on new scholarship on postwar liberalism. (See Part I and Part II.) Karen Ferguson received her PhD in African-American history from Duke University in 1996. A professor at Simon Fraser University, she also has a joint appointment at SFU’s program in Urban Studies. Her most recent book, Top Down, is a deeply researched exploration of the Ford Foundation’s engagement with Black Power in the 1960s and 70s.


Q. Your book argues that liberal organizations actually intersected with, drew from, and participated in black power. What motivated liberals to engage with black power politics?

Yes, they did engage black power in terms of supporting forms of racial separatism and self-determination, but always on their own distinct terms and based on their own distinct motives, which boiled down to fear about the threat that the black freedom struggle presented to the nation’s social order.

I see deep historical roots in this elite response to black power, which is reminiscent of other efforts like founding fathers’ support of black colonization in the Early Republic and robber barons’ funding of industrial education in the Jim Crow South to uphold the “separate-but-equal” doctrine. Like these earlier examples, the leadership at the Ford Foundation – at the time the world’s largest philanthropy and a bulwark of the American establishment – sought to manage the “Negro Problem,” as they were still calling it as late as 1967, through a strategy of racial management based on separation.

As elite whites throughout American history have defined this “problem,” African Americans’ very presence, let alone their fight against their position as an enslaved and then exploited racial caste, gave lie to foundational national values of liberty and equality. While the nation and its elites have most often thrived despite and because of this contradiction, at key points – like the American Revolution, Civil War, and their aftermaths, as well as the civil rights/black power era – the conflict it created over the future of African American citizenship became existential for both. Thus, the Ford Foundation’s leaders’ motivation was vastly different than adherents of any form of black power; their concern was not for African Americans, but for the nation – both to preserve its abstract ideals of freedom and equality and the social order they considered essential to its prosperity.

So, these elite liberals focused on a strategy they hoped would save the nation by ending racial confrontation and upholding the notion of equality through the removal or separation of black people from the mainstream of American society. The justification for this strategy was a developmentalist ideology that adherents framed as benevolent, which claimed that the only way that African Americans could become full citizens would be for them to establish a society of their own, one separate from white America.

In the black-power-era iteration of this strategy, the Ford Foundation would lead the way on what it called the “social development” of the ghetto by partnering with black activists and other elite liberals on a number of initiatives that are today considered among black power’s major legacies. For example, in an experiment in self-governance and autonomous education, the Foundation planned and underwrote black community control school demonstrations in New York City, including the infamous one in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville. The Foundation also pioneered the community development corporation, a model that continues to predominate in public-private efforts to spur economic growth in inner-city neighborhoods. Further, it founded and funded all black and even radically afrocentric performing arts organizations for the cultural uplift of ghetto residents.

Because this program often involved the funding of black activists and intersected with black-power advocacy of racial separatism, black capitalism, and cultural revitalization, the Ford Foundation was seen both by supporters and critics as daring and iconoclastic for treating with black militants. However, that supposed vanguardism looks quite different if we acknowledge that the Foundation was falling back to American philanthropy’s default solution for the “Negro problem.”

Q. One of the most interesting contributions of Top Down is your argument that liberalism actually moved away from integration as the primary method for incorporating black communities into American politics. What accounted for this shift, and how did it dovetail with black power politics?

Like most people (and historians!), my narrative of postwar racial liberalism before researching this book put desegregation and integration at its center. But what I found was that that moment, at least for the Ford Foundation, was very brief.   So, for a short time in the mid-to-late 1950s, the Foundation was sure that it could socially engineer the assimilation of the millions of black migrants to the city, replicating the experience of European immigrants and their children earlier in the 20th century. In that moment, the Foundation’s confident technocrats, recently imbued with both Gunnar Myrdal’s arguments and modernization theory, believed that the issue of black assimilation into the mainstream of American life was only one of many bottlenecks to the modernization of American society that could be overcome through rational, social-scientific methods directed from the top by dominant national institutions. Interestingly, in this early formulation of American racial modernization, whites resistant to desegregation were the “primitives,” not African Americans, in a singular postwar inversion of venerable arguments about racial inequality. But the Foundation beat a retreat from this strategy pretty much at the first whiff of white backlash.

From then on, the Foundation adopted the tried-and-true strategy of elite liberals, to pursue black assimilation through racial separatism, rather than what I would argue is the infinitely more challenging and radical strategy of integration. In doing so, Ford shifted focus from white perpetrator to black victim of racial inequality, absolving whites from their role in the “Negro Problem” and avoiding the white resistance inevitable in any efforts towards desegregation. The Foundation posited that African Americans, because of the legacy of slavery and the behavioral pathology that had supposedly resulted, needed what it called “social development” in their own communities before they could enter the American mainstream. In this fallback to the historical formulation of racial inequality, African Americans, not whites, were the ones suffering from cultural and behavioral lag, which resulted in their ongoing poverty and alienation from the mainstream of American life. This focus on black pathology should be familiar to anyone who knows about the War on Poverty, or the Moynihan Report, or William Styron’s portrayal of black activism in The Confessions of Nat Turner; the Ford Foundation was a dominant source for this hegemonic perspective, which made its assimilationist project politically palatable.

Q. You also argue that the racial liberalism that emerged from the 1960s offered solutions for the crisis of racial inequality that were not significantly different from those offered by conservatives. How does this argument rearrange or disrupt the narrative that liberalism either imploded from the inside or was defeated by a right wing insurgence?

I would say that the methods of conservatives and liberals were different, but not their definition of the problem. Conflict averse liberals chose the velvet glove of social development, rather than the iron fist of law and order, but they shared a notion of African Americans and their quest for freedom as a “problem” that needed to be quelled, rather than as the demands of fellow citizens who were grossly overdue to join the “circle of we,” to use David Hollinger’s phrase.

Q. How did the international context influence liberals attempting to address urban inequality?

Many of the elite liberals who are at the center of my book, including the Foundation’s president, former National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, cut their teeth fighting the Cold War during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. For them, America’s postcolonial scramble for Third World allegiances was their point of reference for dealing with racial inequality. Until they felt compelled to address the racial unrest of the 1960s, most of them lacked any experience with, let alone knowledge of the African-American community or the black freedom struggle.

Ford Foundation officers, along with top officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, regularly compared African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans explicitly to Third World nationals, suggesting how communities of color continued to be perceived by white liberals, as in the past, as foreigners to the nation and hence outside of its citizenry. The Peace Corps even sent its recruits to Indian reservations and inner-city ghettos to prepare them for the conditions they would face in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It’s no wonder that the “social development” solution for African Americans took so much from modernization theory and its totalizing program of assimilation of the global rural peasantry into urban mass consumption.

Q. In Top Down, you argue that liberals incorporated black power notions of black leadership into their model of “elite pluralism.” Can you discuss what you mean by this term and what liberals imagined it could accomplish?

Thanks to the black freedom struggle and ongoing black assertions for full citizenship, the Ford Foundation’s leaders, unlike their forefathers, couldn’t just rely on their separatist model to manage the racial crisis. They sought to find a non-disruptive way, far short of genuine integration, to represent the African-American public in the nation. In response to this dilemma, the Foundation fostered the creation of a new black leadership class that could broker for the black poor and represent them in the American establishment – a kind of elite pluralism that would demonstrate that the nation was living up to its ideals while damping black insurgency.

In developing their leadership development strategy, Bundy and his officers again took a cue from their experience in Cold War foreign relations. A Foundation solution at home and abroad was to accommodate the call for self-determination by identifying and training a cadre of indigenous leaders, whether in Vietnam, Indonesia, or Harlem, who were legitimated to act as peaceful and rational brokers and spokespeople for their nation or race in the domestic sphere and in a U.S.-dominated postcolonial global order. Thus, from the Foundation’s perspective, the African-American community deserved representation in a pluralistic and meritocratic body politic, but such power should be exercised by the “best and brightest” of the black community as defined by the “best and brightest” of the white community. This inclusion would serve to deal with the conflicts created by African Americans’ and other minorities’ emergence in the 1960s as a visible and vocal political force by expanding the nation’s leadership class to include African Americans and then other people of color.

Q. How did this vision compare with actual results?

After a few stumbling blocks, it worked brilliantly from the Foundation’s perspective. At first, in its desire to quell black rebellion, the Foundation met some of the democratizing demands of the black power activists directly by supporting efforts like the call for community control of the public schools in inner-city New York. But as many readers will know from the history of the New York schools crisis, these early experiments went sideways for the Foundation when black communities began making their own choices and choosing their own leaders, leading to potentially significant disruption to the status quo. So instead the Foundation sought to develop its own black leaders and institutions to manage the black community through initiatives like making community development corporations the incubators of an impressive group of Foundation-sanctioned “public entrepreneurs,” as well as an ambitious national university scholarship program that played a significant role in the creation of an expanded black professional class.

I argue that this leadership development strategy was the only concrete and lasting accomplishment of the Ford Foundation’s efforts for African Americans from the 1960s. In fact, this model of elite affirmative action paved a path of least resistance against the claims of black power, one that would be followed by the federal government, corporate America, and public and private institutions across the United States. In the meantime, the Foundation steadily relinquished its social-development agenda as it moved into the 1970s and 1980s. Despite ongoing and even worsening ghettoization, once the nation-threatening conflict and disorder of the riots were over, so was the need to confront the Sisyphean task of dealing with the problems facing inner-city communities. The Foundation stripped down the goals of its philanthropy for African Americans to the fostering of individual minority leadership to ensure that, despite ongoing racial inequality, African Americans could be appropriately represented in the nation’s public life. So it found its answer to the “Negro problem,” and the nation had been saved once again from this fundamental internal contradiction.

I see Barack Obama’s election as the culmination of elite pluralism, initiated at first to manage the threat of black insurgency and in the end permeating the top echelons of American institutional life. His life, and those of his circle, exemplify the ascension of a new black elite in the United States and the long-term success of 1960s establishment liberals’ race management strategy. But the Obama presidency, let alone what has followed, shows how little this strategy has accomplished towards racial equality.

Q. What would you consider the most resilient principle of American liberalism – the major commitment/s that however it evolves, it remains centered around?

As you can tell from my answers so far, when it comes to the elite liberals I study, one of their most resilient, and often forgotten commitments is their formulation of the “Negro problem” and their solution of racial management through racial separatism. Even Abraham Lincoln’s ideal post-emancipation America was one of black colonization on or off American soil. This speaks to a fundamental notion of African Americans as a group being outside of the polity, and as a barrier to and even alien from American liberty and democracy. That idea remains despite the upward mobility of a minority of African Americans.

After I had published this book, I read Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, which deals with the agonizing of elite liberals in the Early Republic and how they ended up inventing the “separate-but-equal” doctrine in order to square the nation’s commitment to equality with the ongoing slave regime and their own distaste for racial mixing. The parallels to my twentieth century protagonists are uncanny – from both groups’ short-lived indictment of whites for racial inequality, to their conflict aversion, to their pathologizing of African Americans, to their top-down and velvet-glove approach to reform, to their “separate but equal” fantasy, to their very real fear of being brought down by the forces of right-wing populism.

Q. Do you think the term “neoliberalism” is a useful one for describing the shift in politics we have witnessed over the last half-century?

This is a challenging question for me, but one that I’ve asked myself frequently, especially since much of my university teaching is in an Urban Studies program steeped in the work of critical geographers whose starting point is the neoliberal turn. I’ve often wondered about how to apply that lens to my own historical work in African-American intellectual history and American racial politics, where questions of political economy are often not at the center.

It is interesting, for example, to think about the end of the long civil rights movement as corresponding to the critical shift to globalization in the 1970s.  There are definitely some notable changes in dominant thinking at that moment. For example, despite the Foundation’s shift from integration to separatist “social development,” it never went off script in the 1960s and early 1970s that its mission was eventual black assimilation into the American mainstream and that that process must happen in the city, as it had so successfully for European immigrants earlier in the century. In fact, the social development program was an effort to keep opportunity alive in the city in the face of deindustrialization and white flight, thus preventing it from devolving into what the Foundation called an American “Calcutta.” However, by the mid-1970s, many elite liberals had lost faith in this model, and readied themselves for a new economy and a new politics. So in 1976 and in the midst of New York’s fiscal crisis, Roger Starr, who had been the city’s housing commissioner since the expansive liberalism of the John Lindsay administration, advocated for a policy of what he called “planned shrinkage” of the city’s poor population. Infamously, he also used the “Calcutta” analogy to justify this contraction, asserting “better a thriving city of five million than a Calcutta of seven million.” Starr and other white liberals had essentially conceded that this center of global capitalism had no place for the working poor, except as an underclass, a far cry from the previous liberal orthodoxy that experts could and should return the city to its role as a crucible of upward mobility.

But neoliberalism is also a very presentist term, isn’t it? So, for example, the Ford Foundation’s turn away from African Americans and the urban crisis when the political crisis of black power and the riots was over wasn’t something only spurred by immediate causes, e.g. the rise of global capital, deindustrialization, rising income inequality, and the devolution of the welfare state, etc, etc. It’s also a deep historical pattern for elite American liberals, who for 200 years had turned their attention away from the intractable issue of racial inequality as soon as the political threat of the “Negro Problem” receded, as it has cyclically throughout American history.

Q. If liberalism is supple and flexible enough to adopt and transform even a politics of black power into something unthreatening to the status quo, then how can its premises successfully be challenged and opposed by contemporary social movements?

Don’t trust elite liberals bearing gifts! If you must treat with them make sure to study them, investigate any allegiance to you they may claim, understand their motivations, know their history of shape shifting, and don’t take their money or promotion of you without knowing that there are never no strings attached. Also, study the populist Right’s successful mobilization against them. They are deathly afraid of populism, no matter its ideological hue.