The Ford Foundation’s Reform From Above in Ocean Hill-Brownsville

Black activists might have initiated the fight for community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968. But the Ford Foundation not only played a key role in the idea’s conception; they shaped its execution according to elite, liberal aims.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with McGeorge Bundy, August 23, 1967. LBJ Library

Chronicles of the New York City schools crisis of the late 1960s usually frame the story as a battle among the obvious stakeholders in public education: students and their parents, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and its membership, and the Board of Education and its administrators. But there was another, private player with no obvious connection to the schools whose interference in the struggle over community control and decentralization would no less shape its outcome than those who did.

The Ford Foundation, at the time the world’s largest philanthropy, took an active role in New York’s schools, intervening as what its officers called a catalytic “change agent” to induce system reform by supporting the call for community control and decentralization. Specifically, Foundation president McGeorge Bundy played a key mediating role in the first volley of the community control movement: the high-profile black activism against the appointment of a white principal at the all black and Puerto Rican Intermediate School (IS) 201 in East Harlem.

Then Bundy was appointed by Mayor John Lindsay to be the chair and driving force of the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Decentralization. Through those auspices, he and a staff of Ford Foundation officers and consultants working out of the Foundation’s offices were the masterminds behind the city’s plan to break up New York’s behemoth school system into smaller units. Finally, and most controversially, the Ford Foundation played a primary role in the choice and creation of — as well as devising the plans and providing the only nonessential operating funds for — the three demonstration school districts (Ocean Hill-Brownsville, IS 201, and Two Bridges in the Lower East Side of Manhattan) that comprised the community control experiment.

Black activists might have initiated the notion of community control from below. But from above, the Foundation, by virtue of its political influence and financial power, not only played an essential role in this idea’s conception but also indelibly shaped its execution according to elite, liberal aims.

Diving in Head-First

Eager to find a meaningful role for the Foundation in this period of urban unrest, Bundy and his officers dove head first into the schools crisis without really understanding New York City’s racial and school politics or the vision of black self-determination held by the community control advocates whom the Foundation supported and then abandoned in the battle over public education in New York City.

The Foundation found itself at the center of an iconic political battle that symbolized the culmination of the twentieth-century black freedom struggle. African Americans sought to use their new voice and visibility to move the formal equality they had recently attained through the postwar Civil Rights Movement to a more expansive notion of freedom that stretched beyond liberalism’s limits. Bundy and his officers’ power over the community control districts’ shape and destiny during this signal moment of black self-determination demonstrates the persistence of white power during the black power era. It also suggests liberalism’s hegemonic influence, even over the most oppositional American social movements.

Why would the Ford Foundation, at the time the largest philanthropy in the world and a bastion of the Cold War establishment, support the black power activism of community control? Such a counterintuitive move makes sense only in the context of postwar liberalism’s crusade to solve the American dilemma of racial inequality, animated by the postwar black freedom movement.

Most elite white liberals in the 1940s and 1950s saw racial inequality as an anachronism that would be inexorably dissolved with black and white rural migrants’ assimilation into the industrial modernity of the city. However, instead of an inevitable, conflict-free incorporation into a color-blind and equal-opportunity political economy, African Americans faced massive white resistance to even the smallest steps towards integration. This was true in New York City, where black activism to achieve racial equality through school desegregation was met by vociferous white resistance and administrative obstruction equal to or exceeding similar white reaction in the South.

Thus, the relevance of race did not disappear as racial liberals had imagined. African Americans’ struggle against American society’s postwar betrayal of their freedom dreams resulted in their emergence as a visible and vocal public in American life as well as the reality of race as a potent and inescapable element in American politics nationwide.

In response to these seismic shifts, during the decade leading up to the schools crisis, the Ford Foundation’s domestic program garnered kudos for its pioneering initiatives to fix one of the kinks that it believed was preventing black assimilation: the postwar migration of African Americans to the urban North and West and the ensuing social and political issues surrounding the degrading, rapidly deindustrializing inner cities where they settled. For the Foundation’s officers, what made this an “urban crisis” was the challenge it presented to the migrants’ assimilation into the American mainstream.

How could former sharecroppers adapt to modernity, be accepted into America’s institutional life, and experience the upward mobility of the American dream — in other words, achieve the assimilated future racial liberals imagined for them — when the industrial city, the erstwhile crucible of immigrant assimilation, was gone or rapidly disappearing?

African Americans’ escalating protest against the ghettoization in which they found themselves trapped only steeled the Foundation’s resolve that its officers must find an answer to this question if they were to restore social peace and the postwar period’s dominant liberal consensus about the American promise. Consequently, the Ford Foundation became a preeminent actor working for the assimilation of urban African Americans into the existing social order, culminating in its 1966 appointment of McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Advisory to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Coming to the helm of the Ford Foundation in the months after both the Voting Rights Act and the Watts riot, Bundy, with no previous interest or experience in racial issues, quickly and publicly committed the Foundation’s domestic program to the pursuit of “Negro Equality.”

Prior to Bundy’s arrival, the Foundation dealt with the urban crisis of racial inequality by imagining a top-down imposition of desegregation in American society — including in New York City, where in the 1950s it funded a massive project through the Board of Education to assimilate Puerto Rican migrants into mainland life through the public schools. This kind of integrationist effort conforms to how we usually think about the racial liberalism of the period.

Very soon, however, the Foundation found that it couldn’t mandate white acceptance of “race mixing.” By the 1960s, cowed by the right-wing firestorm that resulted from its advocacy for school desegregation, the Foundation abandoned and even rejected racial integration as a policy choice, seeking a new way to deal with the urban crisis, which coalesced with Bundy’s presidency.

To achieve its egalitarian aims, Bundy’s Foundation promoted a counterintuitive and seemingly paradoxical policy of assimilation through racial separatism. In doing so its officers followed in the footsteps of many white liberals before them in American history, who had beaten a hasty retreat to “separate but equal” solutions when confronted with the conflict inherent in threatening white supremacy.

In its benevolent variant of racial segregation, the Foundation claimed that with the right supports in place, African Americans could experience a cultural revitalization from within the ghetto and be prepared through what Bundy called their “social development” to eventually assimilate into the mainstream of American society. Because the Foundation’s program evolved at the same time as Black Power and intersected with its advocacy of racial separatism, Bundy was seen both by supporters and critics not as a throwback, but as a daring iconoclast for working with black radicals.

From 1966 until the mid-1970s, the Ford Foundation would spend tens of millions of dollars on Bundy’s social development program by fostering a number of controversial initiatives that seemed to engage directly with the Black Power movement’s call for self-determination. The Foundation’s support of community control marked the first of these experiments. Driven simultaneously by the fear of urban unrest and Bundy’s overweening confidence that he held the formula for a successful postcolonial transition, whether in Vietnam or post‒civil rights America, the Foundation’s involvement in the New York schools crisis ushered in a new phase of social development. During it, the Foundation worked directly with black power advocates, albeit to achieve its, not their, objectives.

Conflict Resolution

It’s hard to imagine, given the controversy that resulted, but the Foundation supported the community control movement in order to resolve, not stir up, the social and political battles that the urban crisis in New York had provoked.

It was motivated first and foremost, as so in much of its postwar grant-making was, by the objective of conflict resolution — operating from the postwar liberal tenet that consensus and consent were markers of a healthy society, and that any open social conflict was behaviorally suspect. From this perspective, the longstanding racial conflict over the schools in New York was the fault of a “sick” system that had infected black parents and students, harming them psychologically: their anger was a symptom of that harm, and had slowed their assimilation.

The Foundation’s education reformers hence supported Black Power for its therapeutic potential to resolve this conflict, defining the power to be gained as psychological or symbolic, not material. Much like the Foundation promoted “affective” education to boost the self-esteem of inner-city kids, it advocated for community control so that the schools would become an assimilative training ground for parents and other adult community members, boosting their confidence and self-worth in a secure, familiar environment.

This narrow, behavioral definition of power led the Foundation’s school reformers to the hopeful conclusion that community control would result in universal empowerment and liberation of all players in the school system: students, parents, teachers, and administrators. As one Ford official put it, power was an “expandable” resource that, if unleashed through community control, would result in consensus building and social development to solve the problems of the ghetto.

As for the Foundation’s role in creating this consensus, Bundy and his officers saw it as a lever and a font of financial and technical support that had the power to change the course of public education in the city against a recalcitrant Board of Education and UFT. In a remarkable inversion of (mostly pejorative) labels with which itself was often associated in the 1960s, the Foundation identified itself as anti-“establishment” and anti-“professional” during the schools crisis. This positioned it as arrayed against the “establishment” of “professionals” — that is, the Board of Education’s teachers and administrators who were unable or unwilling to disturb the system’s status quo, despite its dysfunction.

By contrast, Foundation officers believed that they could cut across politics and business as usual through their expertise, money, and supposedly disinterested understanding of the public good.

Philanthropic Experimentation

Of course, the Foundation was anything but an impartial player during the schools crisis. Instead, all of its meddling in New York’s schools was predicated on the liberal assumption that if only the schools and teachers were better, opportunity would flow, and poverty and inequality would end, without ever reckoning with the heart of black inequality and the very real material power that underlay the exploitation that created philanthropic fortunes.

This mindset persists among today’s liberal philanthropist “disruptors,” who follow in Ford’s footsteps by pursuing top-down efforts to fix the schools based on contempt for the public system and its personnel, faith in private solutions, and hubristic conviction that they hold the answer to solving the crisis in education for poor children of color. Like Mayor Cory Booker, Governor Chris Christie, and as with Mark Zuckerberg’s certainty that $100 million from him could turn around Newark’s schools in five years, or the Gates Foundation’s $200 million bet that the Obama administration and charter school advocates were right that standardized teacher evaluations were a silver bullet for improving learning outcomes for poor, public school kids, the Ford Foundation felt sure that its model of affective education in community controlled schools would educate and assimilate ghetto children and their families into the economic and social mainstream.

Instead, in all these cases, philanthropic interference has resulted in failure.

Furthermore, behind the public rhetoric needed to create the consensus that it sought, there is evidence that the Foundation’s support for community control was rooted in a desire to take education out of the hands of the public system altogether, prefiguring the motivations of today’s champions of charter schools and school vouchers. The Foundation’s preferred, if unpublicized, decentralization plan would have created hundreds of small, competitive, independent school systems run by such entities as universities, corporations, teachers’ unions, and parents. The Foundation even worked with some of the community control activists to come up with a plan for an independent school in Harlem that would demonstrate this approach.

Such Foundation partnerships with black community control activists are confounding, given the black power commitment to radical self-determination, not assimilation into the national fold. One reason for the alliance was pragmatic. In over a decade of organizing, the Foundation was the only powerful white ally black school activists had found that was willing to promote and fund their goals, let alone insert itself into the system’s governing structures to do so.

Furthermore, after years of fighting a recalcitrant system to improve the schooling of black children either through integration or community control, these activists shared to various degrees the Foundation’s view that the Board of Education and UFT were responsible for black poverty and alienation.

More fundamentally, while the Ford Foundation and community control activists had different goals and social visions, both groups believed in taking the same path to achieve them. Both believed that a “sick” school system had harmed black children. Both presumed that the negligence of ghetto schools to educate children was a betrayal of the American city’s erstwhile promise of opportunity and upward mobility. Both understood that these failings perpetuated black poverty and alienation, which they interpreted largely through the lenses of community disorganization, behavioral pathology, and cultural insecurity. And both had faith in a model of social development to overcome black community and individual deficiencies.

This shared framework demonstrated the powerful influence of dominant forms of liberal postwar “poverty knowledge” to explain the urban crisis — a framework for which the Foundation had been a powerful proponent and promoter. These points of intersection, and the Foundation’s willingness to act on them, would make Ford seem, despite its antithetical aims, an acceptable, and even essential, powerful, and moneyed white ally to black activists in the uphill fight for community control.

In the end, this alliance would be short-lived. The Foundation discovered that what it intended as an experiment in assimilation instead became one of the most fully formed examples of black autonomy of the period — while it lasted. By the time of the 1968 strikes, the Foundation was already well on its way to abandoning the community control demonstrations and their black champions, thus washing its hands of this black freedom struggle. But not before helping to set the stage for school and racial politics for decades to come.