Senior Editor Lucas Church’s Interview with Author of White Philanthropy Maribel Morey

The following is an interview between UNC Press’ Senior Editor Lucas Church and Maribel Morey, author of White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation’s An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order. Since its publication in 1944, many Americans have described Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma as a defining text on U.S. race relations. Here, Maribel Morey confirms with historical evidence what many critics of the book have suspected: An American Dilemma was not commissioned, funded, or written with the goal of challenging white supremacy. Instead, Morey reveals it was commissioned by Carnegie Corporation president Frederick Keppel, and researched and written by Myrdal, with the intent of solidifying white rule over Black people in the United States.

Morey details the complex global origins of An American Dilemma, illustrating its links to Carnegie Corporation’s funding of social science research meant to help white policymakers in the Anglo-American world address perceived problems in their governance of Black people.

Maribel, this is a groundbreaking book that not only shows readers the genesis of one of the most famous studies of race, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, but also interrogates the history of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic organization with a global reach. In our neoliberal world where safety nets are scarce and threadbare, philanthropy likely seems like a net good to most people—these institutions seemingly exist to help the less fortunate, after all. Based on your decade plus of research, what do you think would surprise most people about an organization like Carnegie?

A first surprise might be that many philanthropists and their foundations have not necessarily seen—and many still do not necessarily see— that their giving primarily should serve the interests of the less fortunate. In Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better  (2018), for example, political theorist Rob Reich shared his and fellow colleagues’ observations of charitable giving in the U.S., noting that: “Contrary to popular impression, the distribution of charitable giving does not predominantly benefit the poor.” Similarly, Paul Vallely wrote in The Guardian that the biggest donations in education in 2019 in the UK went to “schools that the rich themselves attended. In the UK, in the 10-year period to 2017, more than two-thirds of all millionaire donations” went to higher education, and “half of these went to just two universities: Oxford and Cambridge.” This is all to say that many people might be surprised to learn that charitable giving in the aggregate in the U.S. and the UK— including funding patterns at elite foundations such as Carnegie Corporation at the heart of my research—long have purposefully served the interests of the wealthy and powerful over that of the poor and less powerful. 

This is a controversial topic. I know looking at someone as revered as Myrdal with a critical lens has engendered some intense reactions. Can you talk about some responses you’ve had to your work and how that’s shaped your approach? 

When I started research for this book, I decided to learn Swedish. And spending time in Sweden has allowed me to appreciate, as Swedes do, Myrdal and his collaborator and wife, Alva Reimer Myrdal, as complex thinkers and policymakers, connected with the history of the welfare state in Sweden and also of eugenics in the country. By contrast, while sharing my research in the U.S., I would see how many Americans (and particularly, white liberal Americans) are rather defensive of Gunnar Myrdal, treating him as a simplistically one-dimensional figure who somehow embodied and professed the only possible definition of racial equality in the U.S.  To this point, when my book project went through its first peer review process in the U.S. in 2017, one reader argued that the book’s proposed new title (which included mention of “white rule”) was “terrible, playing to current politics and doing a real injustice to the memory of Gunnar Myrdal.” It was at that moment that I knew that I would either acquiesce to this idolization of Myrdal in the U.S. and disentangle any connections between Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and its links to white rule across the Atlantic or soldier ahead with these connections I clearly saw in the archives. I chose the latter, riskier, and harder route. And by choosing this route, I have published a book reflecting my ethics as a historian, though it did take several more rounds of reviews at two other presses and the absolute advocacy of BIPOC scholars at the end to get this book to publication in 2021.

This is all to say that many people might be surprised to learn that charitable giving in the aggregate in the U.S. and the UK— including funding patterns at elite foundations such as Carnegie Corporation at the heart of my research—long have purposefully served the interests of the wealthy and powerful over that of the poor and less powerful. 

Maribel Morey

What can you tell people about the current state of philanthropy? And should we be distrustful of large philanthropic institutions?

To answer your second question first, we— members of national and global communities— should always remain hopeful and critically aware of the work done by actors professing to be serving the public good. Generally, we are more accustomed to maintaining this critical eye on certain actors (for example, state actors) over others (such as philanthropic and nonprofit actors) who profess to serve the public good. But the staff and leadership in these various organizations are all mortal beings with their own flawed and imperfect views on the world and what it means to serve us: the public. So rather than being distrustful, we should remain watchful and critically aware, continuously questioning if philanthropic and nonprofit actors— like state actors— are actually serving our publics’ best interests. As to the current state of philanthropy, I am encouraged by the greater critical attention that elite philanthropy is receiving at the national and international levels, precisely because philanthropy should not be able to function under-the-radar from public attention, but rather, needs to remain in dialogue with (and remain accountable to) the local, national, regional, and international publics that it intends to serve.

I don’t think that we’ll see an end to philanthropic institutions like Carnegie anytime soon. Knowing they’ll be around for the foreseeable future, what would you change about them?

Specifically at Carnegie Corporation, I would change the perceived need within the organization to sanctify the memory of Andrew Carnegie. There is nothing saintly about Carnegie or any other individual who dedicated their professional lives to maximizing profits at the expense of everyday workers’ financial independence and quality of life. There is also nothing saintly about Carnegie or any other industry-leader-turned-philanthropist who aims, as I show in White Philanthropy, to use their grantmaking practices as means of preserving white domination. I also would push today’s leadership and staff at Carnegie Corporation and its peer organizations to self-reflect on how they’re still part of this history, not only in the demographic make-up of these organizations’ leadership and staff, but also in how they define societal problems needing attention; whom they lean on as advisers; how they define and judge worthy projects to finance; and ultimately too, whom they aim to impact with their grant-making practices and, implicit in this calculation, what they ultimately aim to achieve with their grant-making practices. This is all to say that elite foundations such as Carnegie Corporation and others— assuming they indeed are invested in serving the public good, as they profess and as their organizational structures as 501(c)3s suggest— should constantly be asking themselves how to serve the public good better. And to do that, constant self-reflection with past and current practices at their organizations, along with open dialogue with the public, are critically necessary. 

 Maribel Morey is the founding Executive Director of The Miami Institute for the Social Sciences, which centers the work of Global Majority scholars in the social sciences and neighboring fields.