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The Foundation of American Folly

The Foundation of American Folly
Photo by Dan Dennis / Unsplash
The Ford Foundation has spent decades tearing the country apart, tax-free

It’s November 2023, and, following the October 7 attacks by Hamas terrorists that killed some 1,400 Israelis and at least 31 Americans, thousands of demonstrators march through New York City, calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. Chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” echo through the streets, along with “there is only one solution: intifada revolution.” Among the crowd is the infamous Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour, who warns through a megaphone that a cabal of wily Jews has conspired to place “their little posters” (of kidnapped Israeli civilians) across the city, seeking to entice people to rip them down. While many onlookers might look like “ordinary people,” she says, the Jews have “their little people all around the city,” surveilling others. Sarsour is there to deliver such rhetoric in part because she’s been paid to be there: her nonprofit, MPower Change, has received $300,000 in grant funding from the Ford Foundation “to build grassroots Muslim power.”

It’s May 2023, and protesters have stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to demand that lawmakers not accept spending cuts during negotiations to lift the debt ceiling. Many are so disruptive that the police arrest them and drag them out. These are activists of the Center for Popular Democracy, an extreme left-wing organization that has collected $35.2 million from the Ford Foundation since 2012. Four months later, they will be imitated by 150 youth activists from the “climate revolution” group the Sunrise Movement, 18 of whom will be arrested after occupying the Speaker of the House’s office. The Sunrise Movement also receives Ford Foundation money—$650,000 for “training and organizing.”

It’s April 2023, and, a world away, the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), a think tank set up and directed by the Chinese state, is hosting a conference in Beijing to discuss how to “promote the formation of an internationally accepted ESG system with Chinese characteristics,” including through China’s globe-spanning influence and infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative. But this effort by America’s top geopolitical adversary isn’t too far afield for the Ford Foundation to fund; it has given CDRF $600,000 to help realize its ambitions.

These examples from just the last year—collected via a semi-random tour of the Ford Foundation’s vast Grants Database—represent a tiny fraction of the nearly $1 billion that the foundation gives away yearly, on average. Almost a century old and sitting on a mountainous $16.4 billion endowment in 2022, the foundation is a “philanthropic” giant—one of the five largest in the U.S. If it were a for-profit firm, its market capitalization would rank it among the Fortune 500. Instead, “guided by a vision of social justice,” as its mission statement puts it, the Ford Foundation’s enormous flood of untaxed money flows annually to an immense ecosystem of overwhelmingly left-wing—and often outright revolutionary—causes.

Yet the foundation’s activities remain largely below the public’s radar, the extent of its malign history mostly unknown. This should change. America today faces a multitude of escalating sociopolitical crises that are rapidly tearing apart the body politic: a rapacious strain of tribal identity politics; spreading legal, cultural, and moral chaos; lawlessness in the streets; and the entrenchment of an oligarchic managerial elite, increasingly willing to cast aside any remaining shred of democratic or national sovereignty in its pursuit of top-down global “progress.” Behind every one of these fractures, one finds the ongoing work of the Ford Foundation.

Inside the palatial Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, East 43rd Street, New York, across the street from the United Nations.

In 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a “racial reckoning” swept the United States, kindling fiery riots across the nation, abrupt moves by municipalities to defund police departments, and the near-wholesale capitulation of public institutions—from universities to government agencies to major corporations—to a culturally revolutionary ideology of identitarian grievance and racial separatism. To some, this came as a shock. To the Ford Foundation, it marked the fulfillment of decades of effort.

The foundation has long seen itself as uniquely dedicated to progress and social justice, its stated mission from as early as the 1950s being the “general purpose of advancing human welfare” and to “eradicate the causes of suffering” worldwide. But after current president Darren Walker took the helm in 2013, it began more fully to embrace a public identity as a “social justice foundation” and reoriented its mission to “disrupt the drivers of inequality” in every sphere of life and across the globe.

Thus, the foundation directed a record sum of more than $3 billion to “racial justice” and “racial equity” groups and programs in 2020–21—more than any other nonprofit or individual philanthropist (Mackenzie Scott was the next biggest donor, at $2.9 billion), or any corporate giant (JPMorgan Chase, at $2.1 billion). And it went out of its way to celebrate the successes scored by its lengthy roster of “fearless warriors for equality and justice,” such as those in Minneapolis who had pledged “to dismantle the police department” and in Los Angeles “to divest $250 million of the LAPD’s budget”—both described as “monumental steps in the right direction.”

The Ford Foundation could claim not only to have responded to the “racial reckoning” but also to have propelled it. After 2013, the foundation began funding many of the groups that would coalesce around the label “Black Lives Matter,” as well as the violent “antifascist” (Antifa) radicals who would take to the streets.

In 2016, for example, the Ford Foundation gave $200,000 to help start up the Southern Vision Alliance (SVA), a creation of the Workers World Party, a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1959. The SVA and its subsidiary, Charlotte Uprising, then went on to perform one of the first illegal teardowns of a historic monument in the United States—in Durham, North Carolina—and would be instrumental in coordinating similar acts of iconoclasm across the country in the years that followed.

When the SVA activists involved were charged with rioting and property damage, lawyers from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, also funded by the Ford Foundation, defended them pro bono. Apparently pleased by SVA’s alignment with its own objective of “disrupting systems to advance social justice,” the foundation handed the organization another $1 million in 2018–19. Southern Vision Alliance activists would stage attacks at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in August 2020, resulting in injuries to dozens of police and bystanders. Following this, the foundation tripled its contribution to SVA, to $3 million. In 2023, Charlotte Uprising/SVA activists were among those charged with domestic terrorism for the extreme violence of their organized attacks on law enforcement during a months-long Antifa siege of “Cop City,” a planned police-training facility outside Atlanta.

The Ford Foundation’s history of funding radical, even openly violent, racial identitarian groups extends back far earlier than the 2010s. One could even say that the foundation helped invent American identity politics as we know it today.Subscribe

Before the 1970s, Hispanics did not exist. Of course, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and people from other nations of Central and South America and the Caribbean existed. But they, and their many ethnic descendants in the United States, overwhelmingly saw themselves as rooted in their own specific nations—or as Americans—rather than as constituting a single, definable ethnic group. Nor did they want to be seen as a distinct, let alone oppressed, minority in the United States. Many insisted to disappointed academic pollsters that they considered themselves white.

This was the discovery of “The Mexican-American People: The Nation’s Second Largest Minority,” a massive 1966 study conducted by UCLA researchers who interviewed more than 1,550 residents of the American Southwest. The researchers found that bringing up “prejudice” with their subjects had consistently proved “a loaded topic of conversation,” since “merely calling Mexican-Americans a ‘minority’ and implying that the population is the victim of prejudice and discrimination has caused irritation among many who prefer to believe themselves indistinguishable [from] white Americans.” As the study’s title suggested, this was not the result that the academics sought, since, in their own words, their ultimate objective was to convince Mexican Americans that they “share with Negroes the disadvantages of poverty, economic insecurity and discrimination.”

The UCLA study concluded that, in practice, it was “not yet easy to merge [the Mexican Americans] with the other large minorities in political coalition” through a shared sense of victimhood. This meant that Mexican Americans were missing out on the “concrete gains that would result from a joint classification with other disadvantaged national minorities,” the researchers lamented. Here “concrete gains” meant a flood of government funds (along with opportunities for affirmative-action programs and electoral redistricting) that Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was providing for the nation’s official minority groups.

Paul Ylvisaker, a Harvard social theorist and head of the Ford Foundation’s Public Affairs Program, sought to solve this challenge. It was Ylvisaker’s program that, in 1964, had given the UCLA scholars the then-princely sum of $647,999 to conduct their study. Now, he set out to invent a victimized “Hispanic” identity in the United States.

Paul Ylvisaker, Harvard social theorist, probably thinking about Mexicans.

In 1968, Ylvisaker directed $2.2 million of Ford Foundation seed money into the creation of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), an activist group still operating today, “consciously modeled on the NAACP.” He also provided the funding, including a first-year grant of $630,000, for the formation of the interest group La Raza, which, now known as UnidosUS, is today, in its own words, “the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.” La Raza (literally, “the Race”) was invented by Chicano intellectuals Herman Gallegos, Ernesto Galarza, and Julian Samora—disciples of New Left radical Saul Alinsky—as a means of using shared grievance to racialize “Hispanics” and transform them into a political force. Ylvisaker’s hope in funding these organizations, as he put it in a 1991 essay, “The Future of Hispanic Nonprofits,” was to build a “united front” for the Left—“identity politics” at its most foundational level.

The effort was a smashing success. In the 1970s, La Raza, MALDEF, and similar organizations pressured the U.S. Census Bureau into including a newfangled “Hispanic” category on the 1980 decennial census, replacing the disparate “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish.” Meantime, in 1976, prominent Democratic congressman Ed Roybal—launched into politics in the 1960s by Alinsky’s organizing of the Mexican American vote in Los Angeles—authored and, with activists’ help, succeeded in passing Public Law 94-311, mandating the collection of special unemployment data on Americans who “identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background.” Contending that “a large number of Americans of Spanish origin or descent suffer from racial, social, economic, and political discrimination and are denied the basic opportunities that they deserve,” PL 94-311 was the first—but not the last—American law to define a new ethnic group based on victimhood. A new age of federally mandated racial bookkeeping had arrived, thanks significantly to the Ford Foundation.

Within two decades, “Hispanics” had become not only an official minority group but a key organized client base for the Democratic Party.

This racial invention was not the most radical cause that the Ford Foundation promoted during its turn to identitarian politics in the 1960s. In August 1966, McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, made his first major policy speech as the foundation’s new president, declaring that the organization would chart a new course, shifting from more traditional liberal causes to leading in a “courageous experiment”: from now on, the black struggle would be at the forefront of the foundation’s efforts. Ford’s spending on “rights for minorities” exploded—to $100 million between 1965 and 1969 alone. In 1970, this category would reach 40 percent of the foundation’s entire domestic-program budget. Thus also began the foundation’s first foray into backing the Black Power movement.

The Ford Foundation wasn’t originally intended to be a beacon for leftist revolutionaries. Industrialist Henry Ford founded it in 1936 as a tax dodge. Crippling inheritance taxes imposed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s antitrust Revenue Act threatened to end family control of the Ford Motor Company—hence, a philanthropic awakening. When Ford died in 1947, 90 percent of the company’s holdings were bequeathed as nonvoting shares to the foundation, protecting the family from having to sell stock to raise cash. Then, in a successful maneuver to shield from government scrutiny what was now the world’s largest private foundation, Ford successor Henry Ford II transitioned it into an independent entity that sought to portray itself as an arms-length instrument for America’s Cold War liberal establishment, at home and abroad.

By the 1960s, however, following America’s intelligentsia, the Ford Foundation’s managers came to believe that human welfare would be best served not by building and maintaining lasting institutions and norms but by tearing them down. As Heather Mac Donald chronicled in City Journal almost three decades ago, the foundation’s trustees, energized by JFK’s 1960 election, started “clamoring for a more radical vision,” and, according to a former employee, demanded “action-oriented rather than research-oriented” initiatives to “test the outer edges of advocacy.”

They got them. Enter Paul Ylvisaker, again. His genius was to link the concentration of newly arrived black migrants in inner-city neighborhoods to the federal government’s zeal to wage a “War on Poverty.” Here, he believed, the Ford Foundation could fill a gap in the market for social progress. The foundation would see urban life “perfected” through the latest social-science expertise. What these urban minority “gray areas” (his polite term for ghettos) needed, he argued, was top-down guidance from foundation managers to build grassroots community leadership. He was proposing what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan later described as “nothing less than [an] institutional change in the operation and control of American cities.” Ylvisaker had invented, Moynihan added, “a new level of American government: the inner-city community action agency.”

The Johnson administration, which treated the Ford Foundation as a quasi-official ideas lab, fully embraced Ylvisaker’s gray-areas concept, modeling the urban component of its War on Poverty on his community agencies and incorporating the foundation’s pilot projects, redubbing them federal Community Action Programs (CAPs). Foundation technocrats were effectively parachuted into minority communities around the country to manage the distribution of federal money. Mac Donald memorably described the resulting chaos:

Ford’s urban cadres soon began tearing up cities. Militancy became the mark of merit for federal funders, according to Senator Moynihan. In Newark, the director of the local CAP urged blacks to arm themselves before the 1967 riots; leaflets calling for a demonstration were run off on the CAP’s mimeograph machine. The federal government funneled community action money to Chicago gangs—posing as neighborhood organizers—who then continued to terrorize their neighbors. The Syracuse, New York, CAP published a remedial reading manual that declared: “No ends are accomplished without the use of force. . . . Squeamishness about force is the mark not of idealistic, but moonstruck morals.” Syracuse CAP employees applied $7 million of their $8 million federal grant to their own salaries.

Ford [also created one of] the War on Poverty’s most flamboyant failures—Mobilization for Youth, a federally funded juvenile delinquency agency on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that quickly expanded its sights from providing opportunity to minority youth to bringing down the “power structure.”. . . Its techniques included dumping dead rats on Mayor Robert Wagner’s doorstep and organizing Puerto Rican welfare mothers for “conflict confrontations” with local teachers.

But the Ford Foundation was only getting warmed up. Its metric for success or failure wasn’t results produced on the ground, but proximity to power and influence. In that regard, it considered the gray-areas project and its incorporation into the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to be not only a huge success but also the foundation’s “proudest achievement” to date. This experience helped prompt Bundy’s decision to have the whole foundation intensify its racial meddling efforts in 1966.

Now a superstar, Ylvisaker advanced a further scheme, based on a new pet theory of how to resolve what Bundy called the “Negro problem.” Integration hadn’t worked, on this view, so why not try racial separatism? Drawing directly on the foundation’s typical approach to “development” and “modernization” in the Third World, Ylvisaker asserted that what minority communities most needed was their own racial elite, a trained leadership class, independent from white society. Ford Foundation planners set out to cultivate a distinct black leadership class of the kind that they assumed black communities would deem legitimate. In practice, this meant enrolling the most radical black nationalists they could find.

The foundation chose New York City’s education system as its initial target. The plan was to establish demonstration school districts, in which classrooms and curricula would be put under the control of the “community” (read: the foundation’s chosen activist cadres), in the name of black self-determination. It spent more than $1.4 million on this experiment, including lavishly funding activists’ election campaigns to take over the school boards of chosen districts.

In doing so, the Ford Foundation backed those whom it determined to be “representative of the most militant, the most alienated, the most mistrustful, the most volatile grassroots people challenging the educational system in New York City,” according to an internal foundation document. It was precisely this sense of violent alienation that Ford wanted to cultivate, to bolster “the sense of [minority] identity and self-confidence [the foundation was] striving for.” Ford planners assured doubters that the “classic pattern of the revolutionary is that, when he takes power, he shifts from destroying institutions to building order and new institutions.”

They certainly got plenty of destruction for their money. The foundation chose as the leading figure of its project a militantly antiwhite acolyte of Malcom X, Rhody McCoy, who sought a segregated, all-black school system. McCoy quickly fired dozens of white teachers and assistant principals and chose deputies from within the Black Power movement to replace them, such as Herman Ferguson, a founding member of both the radical Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and Malcolm X’s nationalist Organization of Afro-American Unity. Ferguson was under indictment for an alleged RAM conspiracy to kill Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, the respective leaders of the NAACP and Urban League, whom he considered too moderate. When resistance to making Ferguson a principal proved too much to overcome, McCoy used foundation money to hire him as a “consultant” instead. Ferguson duly organized programs for students that included exhorting them to prepare for armed struggle against whites.

McCoy also hired Les Campbell, the head of the radical Afro-American Teachers Association, who organized the students of his high school into a personal anti-Semitic militia, establishing “bodyguards” to intimidate white teachers and beat up Jews, whom he accused of committing “mental genocide” against black youth. After Martin Luther King’s assassination, Campbell unleashed his young guards to hunt teachers through the halls, instructing them to “send whitey to the graveyard.”

The response to all this agitation was a citywide teachers’ strike that convulsed New York for weeks, causing a lasting fracture in the city’s black–Jewish relations and sparking a national conservative backlash that helped propel Richard Nixon into the White House. Eventually, the Ford Foundation pulled back from funding the project, but it never denounced its grantees or acknowledged any responsibility. Bundy huffed that the public outrage was unfair, saying, “If private foundations cannot assist experiments, their unique role will be impaired, to the detriment of American society.”

Listen to LBJ and Mac Bundy Discuss Kennedy Funeral Plans | HISTORY Channel
McGeorge Bundy with LBJ, no doubt plotting some further idiocy.

We should be clear about Bundy’s notion of the “unique role” of foundations. It had nothing to do with charity. It was, and is, to transmute oligarchic money into influence within the managerial regime that seeks to rule our country. It is to provide a shortcut for setting the direction of policy, changing the rules of governance, or “experimenting” with the nation’s social commons at will, without input or interference from the voting public.

It would be easy to assume, as many conservatives have done for years, that based on its actions, the Ford Foundation must itself be run by some Marxoid cabal. But little evidence suggests that this is true. Rather, if anything, the reality appears worse: the foundation’s often bewilderingly destructive actions result from its complete faith in the superiority of liberal technocratic expertise to engineer a more perfect society from the top down. (It’s worth noting that the Ford Foundation established social science as a modern university discipline, spending almost $65 million between 1949 and 1958 on the effort, including funding the Social Science Research Council and the Department of Social Relations at Harvard.)

Bundy may have funded black nationalists and anticapitalist revolutionaries, but he was no Communist. He and his cabinet represented a who’s who of the era’s centrist, bipartisan national security establishment. And the foundation’s guiding obsession was not Marxist dialectics but the statistics-worshipping “systems analysis” of Ford Motor president, defense secretary, World Bank president, and Vietnam War–bungler Robert McNamara. It was McNamara whom Henry Ford II brought in, along with his storied Ivy League “Whiz Kids” and “organization men,” to kick-start the foundation after 1947. Their passion for abstract planning would remain ingrained in its activities.

What the Ford Foundation has always most abhorred is the democratic will of the common man. As early as 1949, the authors of a key report setting the foundation’s core priorities were openly disdainful of democratic self-government, dismissing the “grotesque” “myth” that “any citizen of reasonable character” was qualified to make important decisions. Instead, they insisted that “at every level of government,” leadership must be placed “in the hands of those best fitted to serve.” Only “sensitive and intellectually gifted men and women” were fit to make decisions as the “competent technicians and administrators” of the country and ensure “the welfare of the general public.”

This thirst to exercise enlightened elite control over the public and circumvent the need for legislative democracy has taken many forms in the foundation’s work. Witness its pouring of millions into remaking American law schools and funding legal professorships, fellowships, and nonprofits, thus inventing an entirely new field—public-interest law—engaged in the lobbying of federal courts to impose big social changes by fiat.

When the Ford Foundation used India as a test bed for its Malthusian theories of international development, flooded the country with “population control” experts, backed Indira Gandhi’s seizure of dictatorial power in the 1970s, and supported the Indian Brahmin elite’s compulsory sterilization of more than 10 million lower-caste Indians, this, too, was in line with its technocratic disdain for the masses.

When the Ford Foundation today supports efforts to sublimate American national sovereignty to supranational global institutions like the United Nations and World Health Organization, and it echoes on its website, word for word, the Chinese regime’s preferred propaganda about the need for “greater equity and fairness in international debates about global governance systems,” its inclination for top-down control is again on display. (No one appears yet to have done a full survey of what, exactly, the foundation is up to in China, where it is notably one of only a handful of foreign NGOs still allowed to operate.)

The Ford Foundation may today use the trendy language of the “woke” progressive revolution and back all the latest causes in the name of social justice, but its nature hasn’t much changed from the 1960s. Its decades spent shredding the American way of life merely show what happens when a gang of self-regarding “experts” are handed an almost unlimited pile of other people’s money to spend, an indefinite mission to change the world, and no accountability whatsoever.

“I made a lot of mistakes,” Henry Ford II told an interviewer in 1973, “but the biggest mistake I ever made was to give up control of the Ford Foundation.” The foundation, he said, had “been a fiasco from my point of view from day one. And it got out of control.”

“You know,” he mused, “we [the Ford Motor Co.] only exist because we’re smart enough to sell something for a profit and we can get thrown out or we can go broke; but those people, they’ve got nobody to answer to.” He had, he said, tried several times to break up the foundation but had been unsuccessful because “I didn’t have enough confidence in myself at that stage to push and scream and yell and tell them to go fuck themselves, which, you know, I should have done.”

We’d all be better off if he had.

Originally published in City-Journal magazine, Spring 2024.

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