“Hearts & Minds” In Harlem: “Domestic Neocolonialism” & the Ford Foundation’s Co-Option of Black Power

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With a Vietnam tested playbook, the Ford Foundation waged war vs. Black radicalism in NYC. Their weapons; grants, patriarchy & the illusion of independence

By Lawrence Grandpre

Introduction: Domestic Warfare Through Philanthropy-The Rise of McGeorge Bundy

Part of racism is the inability of the powerful to conceptualize oppressed groups as having unique histories and cultures to be respected and embraced. Too often, the impulse is to pathologize these communities and to see the natural “solution” for these communities is making them more like the powerful (in the case white) community. Thus, when those in power in the 60s and 70s were presented with the problem of how to help Black people as a collective, the children of the Kennedy’s “Camelot” looked into what had seemed to work for other groups of people when deciding how best to help the Black community in the wake of the social upheaval of the 60s.

While it is perhaps not surprising that the white ethnics from the Kennedy era look to the experiences of Italians and Germans for models to facilitate the “civilization” of Black communities, there was a second template for how these elites chose to engage Black communities, the Vietnamese.

In her book Top Down, Simon Fraser University professor Karen Ferguson details the work of McGeorge Bundy, The National Security Advisor to John F. Kennedy and one of the most influential heads of what was then America’s largest philanthropic institution, the Ford Foundation. The Yale-educated member of the Brahman elite, Bundy quickly distinguished himself among the so-called “best and brightest” who found their way into the ostensibly meritocratic Kennedy administration. Kennedy turned to Bundy for guidance on navigating the foreign policy labyrinth of the Cold War. In this role, he would take stances seemingly at odds with the humanitarian goals of philanthropy, as his interpretation of “pragmatic” policy-making led him to support robust involvement in the Vietnam War and various other hawkish positions in the name of resisting the spread of Communism, as Ferguson writes:

“Bundy had a special rapport with the president; both men shared a cool, pragmatic, and activist ethic, which Kennedy liked to call “balls,” or the courage to take action. …Bundy was almost always a voice for action in the Kennedy and Johnson White House, much of which was or could have been disastrous if carried out. He advocated for airstrikes against Cuba during the missile crisis; supported covert operations like the Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose to overthrow or assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro, as well as the ultimately murderous plot to instigate a coup to depose South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem; and, most fatefully, pushed for the sustained bombing of North Vietnam, which would escalate American involvement into all-out war… Bundy remained a key foreign policy advisor to LBJ after leaving Washington for the Ford Foundation.” (Ferguson, 66-67).

While some have derided the increasingly used phrase “Non-Profit Industrial Complex” by some, who see a comparison between nonprofits and the military as a stretch, this information should challenge that skepticism. Ferguson’s analysis asks the reader to take seriously the question of how the Military Industrial Complex and a notion of war fighting implicate how philanthropy engages Black communities, both at the height of “Black Power” in the 60s and 70s, as well as today.

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McGeorge Bundy on the cover of Time Magazine in 1965. After being JFK’s national security advisor, he went onto to lead the Ford Foundation, and took what he learned in Vietnam to his work at Ford.

Ferguson goes on to explicate how Bundy was simultaneously the leader of America’s most powerful foundation and was an active  architect of American foreign policy and the Vietnam war. While this would appear contradictory to many observers, Ferguson’s analysis shows Bundy saw the Ford Foundation’s involvement with Black Power as an annex of the strategy he advocated for in Vietnam, one of intentionally and carefully “picking winners” among the factions within your enemy’s population and giving funding to the groups who will undermine your most serious opposition from within their own masses. Ferguson presents a paradox, that the Ford Foundation, using the experiences of white “ethnic enclaves” as an example, felt that a period of separatism for Black communities would in the long term facilitate the peaceful integration of Black communities into the American mainstream. By creating the experience of social responsibility through incubating (nominally) Black led institutions,  Bundy hoped to use the incubation of Black institutions as both a release valve for social tensions and a tool to create a new Black leadership class who could serve as new intermediaries between the Black community and the White establishment. As this analysis sets a conceptual framework for the book and for this piece, it deserves to be quoted at length. Ferguson writes:

“Bundy’s solution to this problem in Vietnam, especially when he acted as an external advisor to Johnson after joining the Ford Foundation, was a program of pacification and what would come to be called “Vietnamization” of the war, whereby he hoped, respectively, that the good intentions and works of the Americans would overcome the nationalist appeal of the Viet Cong, and that building the capacity of the South Vietnamese to rule and fight for themselves would allow U.S. troop withdrawal. In promoting these policies, Bundy attempted to deal with what he saw as a central dilemma of the war: while, according to Cold War logic, the “loss” of South Vietnam to the North could not be countenanced, the South Vietnamese could not be “won” through what he called an anachronistic “white man’s war” against “brown men.”85 Such a battle would only build antipathy to the United States and its anti-Communist mission in the postcolonial world, not to mention aggravate the enormous social conflict over Vietnam at home, which Bundy compared to the Civil War in terms of its threat to the nation. Thus, more and more, he advocated for a kind of guided development and self-determination in South Vietnam, in which under the military protection of the United States and its “massive support for relief, for rehabilitation and for economic and social advances,” the region would experience “growing military and political strength and self-confidence.” Significantly, he even compared such efforts to Johnson’s domestic Great Society.

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Picture of I.S. 201. Windows in the school were designed to limit exposure to the outside world, a physical manifestation of a belief that the school’s goal was to “elevate” their children beyond their neighborhood’s perceived “pathology”.

The logic behind this strategy corresponded directly to Bundy’s controversial decision to engage at home with the demands of Black Power advocates. In fact, Bundy conjoined the war in Vietnam to the black freedom struggle as similar and equally important national responsibilities. As he suggested at the end of his Foreign Affairs article, both were essential to the crucial “construction of a stable peace,” quoting from his hero, Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who set this global goal as America’s responsibility in the postwar world.87 So while critics may have seen the Foundation’s actions in the Black Power era as dangerous flirtations with black “revolutionaries,” Bundy was simply adjusting what were for him intertwined domestic and international “development” strategies to the age of self-determination, without altering their goals. Like Bundy’s aims for Vietnam, abroad the Foundation sought to shape a new postcolonial reality in which independent third world peoples were made available for incorporation or assimilation into a global order dominated by the United States—that is, if their call for self-determination could be engaged while still protecting the American interests. At home, black sociologist Robert Allen wrote in 1968 about the Foundation’s “domestic neo-colonialism” in manipulating the black movement at home to precisely these ends.

Thus , in the United States, the Foundation approached the dilemma of the peaceful incorporation of African Americans into the American political economy from a perspective that emphasized racial separatism so that African American communities could mature to assimilate into the American mainstream with the least conflict possible. The separatism of this approach and also its emphasis on building black cultural identity and developing

From the beginning, Bundy believed that a strengthened black identity would ultimately buttress African Americans’ “membership in society as a whole.”89 Consequently, the Social Development program fostered “grant proposals directed at increasing the group identity and power of minorities” insisting that “in black identity (at least those manifestations free of reverse racism and destructive apartheidism) may lie the social strength that played so critical a part in the rise of other urban ethnic groups to political and economic status.”90 This therapeutic emphasis connected to the Foundation’s desire to replicate white ethnics’ urban success among African Americans and Ford’s historical emphasis on the behavioral aspects of the modernization process. More immediately, it also reduced black power to a psycho-cultural and therapeutic issue of black identity without having to deal with the structural and material issues that initially fostered the call for black self-determination. Nevertheless, despite the assimilationist and pacification objectives behind the Foundation’s focus on building black identity, it converged directly with the cultural focal point of black nationalism. (Ferguson- 79-80.)

Bundy’s interest in Black Power was forged in the jungles of South Asia. His superficial reading of Black history, including consultation with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the reading of books which accused slave revolt leader Nat Turner of mental illness, mirrored his superficial understanding of Vietnamese political dynamics (the extent of Bundy’s on the ground experience in Vietnam was a four-day “fire brigade” trip he took after years of forming war policy from DC). In order to productively address the perceived risk of Black radicalism, rather than attempt to quash it, he promoted a version of it that sought to contort Black Power into a representational and cathartic phenomenon in order to forestall versions of Black Power which would demand fundamental change to systems of power.

Strange Bedfellows: The Ford Foundation Engages Black Power

This analysis has profound implications for how we conceptualize the value and impact of the Black Power movement, as much of the contemporary analysis around Black Power/African centered political movements looks at the version of these movements held up by the Ford Foundation and correctly sees these as flawed. Ferguson’s analysis presents an opportunity to see these movements within a new light, one where powerful forces are selecting and promoting versions of Black Power which were more amenable to elite White liberal’s desire for racial liberalism and intentionally promoting more artistic, cathartic and representationally focused forms of Black Power.

There are three case studies which show the real-life impacts of the way Bundy and Ford approached their task of implementing a strategy of “developmental separatism” in Black communities. In the field of education, Bundy was personally involved with negotiating a response to Black anger over the New York City school board’s handling of I.S. 201 in 1966. Hear, the NYC school board proposed creating a new school in East Harlem, but instead of an integrated school as the community had originally wanted, the school board bowed to white parental backlash and created a segregated (Black and Puerto Rican) school with, to add insult to injury, a white principal at its helm (Ferguson, 93). Groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Malcolm X’s Organization for African American Unity (OAAU) got involved, arguing that the new school should be placed under the control of the community and, reflecting the frustration with failed attempts at integration after Brown v. Board, argued that Black communal self-determination should be the new framework used in education policy. The Ford Foundation saw this as an opportunity to test out their organization’s strategic pivot towards engaging Black organizations through a lens of developmental separatism, brokering a settlement between Black activists and the school board which would create three “community-control demonstration districts” as a nod to activist’s demands.

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A picture of I.S. 201. I.S. 201 was built with assumptions of Black/Brown community deviance, literally, built into its foundations. The lack of windows was to keep students away from “distractions”, and cut students off from a perceived “dangerous” community.

Ferguson details the conflict of interest between Ford and community advocates which would show the inability for the foundation to adopt, or even truly understand, activist calls for self-determination, revealing the institution’s vision of Black power as a strategic bridge to the assimilation of the negro masses. The Ford Foundation funded the demonstration sites on a shoestring budget, making them consistently dependent on the foundation for their survival, and refused to give local activists substantial investments for fear of these activists gaining political power. Ford set out to intentionally try to fund  Black organizations “representative of the most militant, the most alienated, the most mistrustful, the most volatile grassroots people challenging the educational system in New York City” (Ferguson, 137). This wasn’t altruism on Ford’s part, it was an intentional strategy. By giving Black activists a little bit of power over (and a lot of responsibility to) these institutions, Ford hoped to essentially “mature” these aspiring revolutionaries into the sort of neoliberal managerial subjects who Ford felt would be necessary to help Black communities assimilate into broader American society. Ferguson writes:

“Foundation’s school reformers believed community control would ultimately result in more meaningful black assimilation than any efforts at desegregation. Therefore, unlike many white commentators, the Foundation’s school reformers did not fear the active participation of presumed “radicals” in the school system. They reassured community-control critics on this point by reminding them that the “classic pattern of the revolutionary is that, when he takes power, he shifts from destroying institutions to building order and new institutions.”67

However, in order to achieve this conflict resolution, these “revolutionaries” had to learn the fundamental responsibilities and skills of political involvement and institutional management. That this social-development process could begin in the familiar environment of African Americans’ own neighborhoods, among their own people, and through a public institution that bridged the ghetto and the wider world, made community control of the schools the perfect training ground for the Foundation’s developmental separatism. As one MAP discussion paper put it, “The great need at this time is to enable neighborhoods and ethnic groups, particularly in the ghettos, to develop strength, self-confidence, and a feeling of control of their destiny. Requiring interaction with other groups at this time would not only make this difficult but might generate strife and factionalism.”68 In other words, like black students, black communities were in the childhood of their development, and they needed the shelter of the ghetto to build the necessary skills for full political and social participation. In promoting racial separation, the school reformers were shunning the “integration of vastly unequal parties” in exchange for a period of separate social development and the potential for a more equal incorporation of African Americans into the polity in the future.69

This social development through the separatism of community control was particularly important to the Ford Foundation during the schools crisis when African Americans would not accept guidance from nonblack outsiders. Exogenous white leadership had been a hallmark of the Foundation’s earlier community-action interventions because of its presumption of ghetto dwellers’ incapacity for effective self-rule.70” (Ferguson, 108-9).

With “domestic neocolonialism” as their framework, the foundation gave Blacks nominal control without recognizing the community’s right of self-determination. The foundation invested heavily in a white academic, Maryland Goodell, to become the recognized expert and “technical advisor” in these schools. One could argue this reflects Bundy attempting to treat Harlem like the U.S. Military has treated so many Cold War nations, with powerful interests controlling the action while claiming to merely be “technical advisers”. The Ford Foundation was thus attempting to fight the equivalent of a “proxy war” in the ghetto, with its target being radical Black (inter)nationalism. This produced an environment where Black self-determination was contingent upon foundation support, as these Black institution’s attempts to assert their nominal independence met with resistance from the white community and the teacher’s union. Two especially contentious events marked key turning points for the foundation, showing the limits of their support. First, an event marking the legacy of Malcolm X was seen as “too radical” in tone by the white community and many of the racial liberals in the foundation agreed. Second, P.S. 201 faced backlash from the teacher’s union after the firing of white teachers who didn’t fit the school’s race-conscious pedagogy but had seniority in the union. The foundation eventually backed away from these community control districts and opened the space for the state of New York to pass a bill in 1969 which effectively ended the community control experiments.

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Teacher’s strike in 1968 after community control district school fired white teachers with seniority. Ford’s lack of support for the school’s decision reflect the limitations of Foundation funded “self determination”.

Rethink the “Failures” of Black Power: The Ford Foundation’s Promotion of Black Patriarchy

The Ford foundation’s investments in other fields mirrored these dynamics, and Ferguson’s work, though she does not take this question up herself, presents a fundamental challenge to some of the historical assumptions on and criticism made against the Black Power movement. While Black Power organizations are often narrated as naive, with a dogmatic commitment to anti-white ideology cutting them off from support and resources available from a broader coalitional approach, Ferguson’s book reveals examples of strategic thinking which is often not mentioned in discussions of Black power organizations. Ferguson notes that Black activists strategically shifted from integration to community control as an education reform strategy, and attempted to essentially play the Ford Foundation against the white school board with the hopes of leveraging concessions by aligning with what they saw in their eyes as the lesser of two evils.

Similarly, Ferguson’s work shows that one of the central criticisms of Black Power formations, their promotion of patriarchal leadership, is more complex than perhaps typical theorized. In their donations to support Black arts, the Ford Foundation’s desire to create a less structural change focused and a more representation focused Black Power movement led them to withdraw support from Robert Hooks, Douglas Turner Ward and Gerald Krone and their successful Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). Publicly, Ford argued they withdrew support because they could no longer support a theater which failed to make enough money to be independent, using the other (mostly white) theaters Ford supported as examples. This shows Ford’s lack of genuine desire to rectify historical inequity, which would have justified treating the NEC differently than white arts institutions which would have a more affluent funding base. Their privately stated purpose, to create institutions which could “civilize” potential radicals in the Black community, led them to shift their support to Robert Macbeth’s New Lafayette Theater, which espoused a radical Black/African centered philosophy in its works despite Macbeth having done most of his work prior to this in the white theater community. Ford embraced his superficial radicalism, including esoteric versions of African “rituals” in his works which ironically served to isolate the theater from the grassroots Harlem community.

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Picture of Robert Macbeth. As leader of the New Lafayette Theater, Macbeth alienated actors and the community with this heavy handed style and patriarchal stances. Despite this, he was propped up by Ford because they felt his style better promoted “developmental separatism”.

It seemed to fit Ford’s mission of cultivating institutions which could attract political radicals and assuage them by offering them limited material power over their institution and with cultural pride, alleviating their need for political agitation. Macbeth seemed to do this by presenting an aesthetically radical but political empty version of Black power which offered its adherents catharsis through achieving an imagined “pure” Africanity. Macbeth used this vision of cultural purity to control his artists, cutting them off if they worked in any theater outside of Harlem, and presented himself as a charismatic male leader who denied women leadership roles in the New Lafayette Theater and espoused anti-gay propaganda as part his organization’s artistic mission (Ferguson, 206-207). It is absolutely imperative to note that, despite long-standing tropes around Black communities being seduced by charismatic male leadership, Macbeth and his team were not propped up by a Black community hungry to consume the vision of patriarchal leadership, but a White philanthropic establishment that believed the best way to integrate Black communities which, as the now infamous Moynahan report suggested, were perceived to be “too matriarchal” for proper integration into American society, was to promote strong, patriarchal leaders within these “developmental separatist” institutions.

When Revolutionary Empowerment becomes “Leadership Development”: The Rise of the CDC

Ford repeated this pattern of strategic selection of community leaders and deploying patriarchy as a tool to sap revolutionary energy in its engagements with the Bedford -Stuyvesant Community Development Corporation (CDC). When the Ford Foundation sought Robert Kennedy’s help in organizing the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Committee, an umbrella group of churches, civic groups, and social workers to help pursue its new economic development agenda, it ran into complex political dynamics where many Black women in the organization sought to push back against the influence of the Ford connected proxies. When Ford realized they needed to form a new entity, they brought in Sonny Carson, head of Brooklyn Congress on Racial Equality, to levy a gendered critique of women who were pushing back against Ford’s influence, claiming they were constricting the expansion of black male leadership and “emasculating the community and denying [them] models of black manhood” (Ferguson, 225). Carlson maneuvered with his connections to exclude Shirley Chisholm from these efforts, again showing that it was only Black men which were seen “authentic” grassroots community leaders in the black community, but these female leaders were deemed less pliable to the larger white power structures plans. This is a similar strategy to the one the foundation used in the P.S. 201 incident, where the Foundation capitulated to nationalist influences who refused to have anyone but a Black man lead the school.

Ford sought an archetypal Black male patriarch to lead the community development efforts in Brooklyn, and they found Franklin Tomas, a man, according to Ferguson, ”whose gender, education, and even outward appearance mirrored the liberal establishment’s own self-perception as the natural born leaders of America” (Ferguson, 227).  One of the CDC’s signature programs, the CHIP program which employed young men to do facade improvements, was explicitly framed as creating space within the traditional economy for traditionally excluded Black male laborers. Conversely, the CDC’s programming for women, the textile factory Design Works, received high profile presentations but failed to create sustainable economic opportunity for young women (Ferguson, 250). As the CDC rose to prominence as an economic and cultural engine, its failure to promote broad-scale economic empowerment for the Black community came second to the Ford Foundation, whose primary success was the promotion of a small sliver of Black leaders who used the CDC to gain the managerial experience and became “developmental separatist” success stories, the people who Ford thought could lead Black American into effective integration into the American mainstream.

Conclusion: Toward a New Historiography of Black Movements

Investment in Black communities is often heralded as the height of social justice. While it is logical and correct in many cases for activists to continue to agitate for investment in Black organizations, Ferguson’s book is a lesson that not all investment is good investment. It is important not to see this history as naïve Black organizations being co-opted by forces beyond their comprehension. In many cases, these activists knew of the dangers of the Ford Foundation and strategically maneuvered their organizations to be as independent of them as possible. Ferguson’s book should lead those interested in Black communal liberation to be exceedingly skeptical of philanthropic investments and to insist the maximum amount of community control over all “investments” made in the Black community.

It is also important to note that many academic institutions are currently promulgating a contorted version of this story. Black communities are seen as pathological for accepting patriarchal Black nationalism, without any discussion of the multi-billion dollar white institutions which were literally using counterinsurgency tactics on them by strategically selected what versions of Black nationalism got institutional power in Black communities. In many cases, as shown with the New Lafayette Theater, these were the least representative and most patriarchal versions of Black nationalism and Afrikan Centered thought in these communities. Nonetheless, they gained power because of some combination of the racist paternalism of white liberals, who in some cases assumed that these Black “leaders” would have support precisely because of their bombast and patriarchy, and intentional decisions made by white leaders who felt that propping up these Black Potemkin leaders would serve the long term goal of integrating the Black community into the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy which is mainstream America. White leaders sought to invest in a version of Black power ‘fiefdoms” which gave their owners a sense of false empowerment and centered on artistic and representation focused version of Black Power as a tool to forestall more radical and revolutionary alternatives. The inability to discuss the philanthropic political economy behind many of the most reactionary versions of Black radicalism being propped up by white institutions is a huge flaw in the liberal academic narration of the history and trajectory of Black movements and demands a full scale reexamination of the assumptive logic behind the demonization of Black institution building and Pan-Afrikan nationalism in the contemporary liberal academy. It also calls for increased epistemic expansion of the disciplinary limited of Black studies to include a more internationalist and Pan-Afrikan framework for interpreting even the explicitly “domestic” system of power such as American philanthropy.

While the lack of a revolutionary critical mass in the Black community in the 70s is often read through the lens of the prison industrial complex and COINTELPRO, Ferguson’s book presents the important corrective to see philanthropy as the velvet glove of white supremacy to the iron fist of the Prison/Military Industrial Complex.