(Swans - June 28, 2010) Liberal foundations are shadowy power brokers of the knowledge-producing sector; not because they wield their power in secret, but because, for the most part, the privileged recipients of their services choose not to bite the hand that feeds them -- thus allowing them to "naturally" remain in the shadows well away from critical inquiry. In testament to these foundations' domination of the minds of their highly trained and legitimized intellectuals, even the most critical knowledge producers studiously ignore the ability of massively wealthy capitalist funders to shape the evolution of current research priorities (in public at least). Of course, all intellectuals vary in their level of subservience to the power of Capital, and some minds are naturally more in tune than others with the demands (or simply desires) of elite funding networks. Melville Herskovits's mind thus presents a stunning example of profitable compatibility that is described in Jerry Gershenhorn's intriguing biography Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge (University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
Understanding how elite power is instrumentalized through scholarship is critical if one is serious in creating knowledge in ways that can be used to serve the interests of the many, not the few. Therefore, this article provides a selective review of Gershenhorn's important study to illustrate how liberal foundations have succeeded in cultivating scholars to sustain a status quo in political and economic affairs that can respond to, and actively co-opt, public resistance.
Born in 1895, Melville J. Herskovits can be said to have first joined the knowledge-producing sector in 1920 when he was admitted to Columbia University to study for his Ph.D. where he worked under the supervision of Franz Boas. His life would end in 1963, not long after he had acted as the founding president of the African Studies Association (1957-8), a society that epitomized his dedication to liberal philanthropists. Yet at the start of his career this future was by no means clear as his interest in radical politics meant that "he briefly joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1920." (1) Herskovits's inclination for emancipatory politics is highlighted by his decision to work with Boas, and he was soon to join Boasians in his challenges of the "intellectual" foundations of biological determinism -- a significant debate that had been raging since World War I. Gershenhorn writes:
The conflict between racialists and culturalists was played out in the National Research Council (NRC), formed in 1916 to coordinate scientific research in the interest of American military preparedness and national defense and principally backed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Rockefeller Foundation. Following World War I the first major institutional attempt to study race was made by the NRC's Committee on Scientific Problems of Human Migrations (CSPHM), formed in 1922 to finance anthropometric studies of race differences that would promote immigration restriction. Robert M. Yerkes, the Yale psychologist in charge of the army's World War I intelligence tests, and Clark Wissler of the American Museum of Natural History, dominated the committee. Both Yerkes and Wissler were members of the Galton Society, an exclusively white Protestant organization formed by the eugenicist anthropologist Charles B. Davenport and the racist author Madison Grant. The CSPHM generally supported studies that investigated biological and not environmental influences and thereby succeeded in postponing the ascendance of the cultural school of anthropology. (p.28)
Here, at this important time in Herskovits's career, it is already apparent that the major funders of academic research were making their presence felt. "In this atmosphere dominated by nativists, eugenicists, and racists, foundation support -- mediated by the NRC -- for cultural anthropology dried up, while studies in archeology and physical anthropology were readily funded." This selective funding drought literally forced individuals who would later become "prominent cultural anthropologists" like Herskovits, Ralph Linton, and Fred Eggan to follow the money and launch their careers in better funded spheres of research. Linton and Eggan consequently began their studies in archeology, while Herskovits began his research in the field of physical anthropology. "Thus the NRC's interest in biological studies of race for the purpose of investigating race-related social issues and immigration altered the direction of Herskovits's early career." (2)
Herskovits received his Ph.D. in early 1923 with a dissertation entitled "The Cattle Complex in East Africa," and despite coming up against active resistance from eugenicists, Boas and his NRC allies "overcame the opposition of Clark Wissler" (and other members of the NRC committed to eugenics) and in April 1923 Herskovits was granted a one-year, $15/month fellowship starting from June 1923. For this project he was required "to work under Boas and Columbia psychologist Edward L. Thorndike," the latter being a "supporter of eugenics and a member of the Galton Society." The following year Herskovits also gained support for his work from the International Education Board (which had been "founded the year before by John D. Rockefeller Jr.") although it was his "emphasis on the biological aspects of his study [that] proved decisive in gaining foundation approval for his project." (3)
The subtle and some not so subtle pressures of the foundations clearly influenced Herskovits's thinking with regard to his first major book, The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing (1928), upon whose publication, famed activist-intellectual W.E.B Du Bois "pronounced Herskovits a 'real scientist' and called the book 'epoch-making.'" Yet not all radical intellectuals were so forthcoming with compliments for his debut book, and Carter Woodson was scathing with his criticisms, saying that: "The whole effort seems to have been to prove that the Negro is inferior to the whites, but so far the only thing that we have is the evidence of differences in progress due to environment and opportunity." Gershenhorn adds, how "In Woodson's mind, Herskovits's physiological approach supported the racist assumptions of traditional anthropologists." So while "the main results of his study weakened the notion of race as a fixed biological category, Herskovits use of a biometric methodology [and his emphasis on physical traits and not environmental influence] inadvertently reinforced a biologically based race concept." (4)
These criticisms of The American Negro had even more bite because in 1927 Herskovits had already published a pamphlet entitled "The Negro and the Intelligence Tests" that indicated he "was shifting the discourse from a focus on race and biological factors to an emphasis on culture and environmental factors." Therefore, his omission of this research from his book "led some critics to claim that his book did nothing to countermand their claims for white superiority." In Herskovits's mind one can imagine that the pruning of such controversial ideas was made on a purely pragmatic basis to win over more people to his point of view. The commitment to such pragmatic attempts to persuade elites of the relevance of their arguments likewise explains why Boas and Herskovits adopted the same methodology (the biometric technique) as their intellectual opponents, which as already noted, "validated the continued emphasis on race and physical differences for purposes of scientific analysis." (5) Of course, while the efficacy of using these arguments is highly problematic, such piecemeal attempts to catalyze political reform were highly useful to liberal foundations, something that Herskovits was surely well aware of.
The trend to promoting reformism would dominate Herskovits's career, but in the early stages of his academic life financial support for his "plans to study African American cultures" was not always forthcoming from elite networks, and unlike his later overseas research trips, his initial ones were not directly supported by the foundation community. In the first instance he was able to secure private support from the wealthy folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons, who "provide[d] major funding for Herskovits's two Suriname trips and the Dahomey trip." This aid was supplemented by monies from the Columbia University Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and the Northwestern SSRC -- funding that was only one step removed from major foundation patronage, as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial "provided most of the financing" for these "university Social Science Research Councils" as they also did for the national SSRC. Likewise, one might note that Herskovits was already beginning to establish useful connections to the national SSRC, having "served on the SSRC's Committee on Race Difference, which tracked and planned research on racial tests" in 1928; and in the following year "as an adviser on two projects approved by the SSRC Advisory Committee on Interracial Relations." (6)
Despite encountering minor foundation resistance to his work, his research output from these early expeditions was still highly compatible with their interests, as for example, Herskovits's book on Dahomean culture conveniently "excluded any systematic discussion of the influence of power relations and imperialism on the cultures of colonized peoples." Similarly, Herskovits's "deployment of a psychological explanation for Haiti's social, economic, and political instability minimized the impact of foreign domination, internal social conflict, and political corruption." During the 1930s, he thus witnessed "increased success at obtaining funding" from foundations, and "[b]y the mid-1930s Herskovits's influence was enhanced by his close friendship with sociologist Donald Young, who was in charge of fellowships and grants-in-aid at the SSRC." As one might expect, Herskovits was able to use his growing position of influence to provide selective support for up and coming intellectuals, and for example, he "helped Ralph Bunche get an SSRC fellowship to do post-doctoral work in anthropology at Northwestern in 1936-37." (7)
By 1939, the foundation community was again more than ready to handsomely reward Herskovits for his useful scholarship, and his second trip to the West Indies to work in Trinidad with his wife, Frances Herskovits, was "financed by a $3,250 grant from the Carnegie Corporation," which resulted in the book Trinidad Village (1947). (8) Not surprisingly:
Several reviewers pointed out that Herskovits had failed to properly analyze the impact of British imperial control on the culture. ... Trinidadian historian Eric Williams criticized the Herskovitses for underplaying the cultural impact of British-style public education, one of the main institutions for foisting British culture of the Trinidadians. Williams also reproved the Herskovitses for praising the British "emphasis on literary training for white-collar work" and praising the British imposition of their own standards on the Trinindadians." (p.86)
The Herskovitses' unrelenting ability to work in the service of imperialism meant that the foundation money kept rolling in, and their last major ethnographic field trip was their Brazil trip (September 1941 to August 1942), which was "funded by a $10,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation." (9) Ironically, while Herskovits was clearly opposed to racial injustice and was a "longtime member of the American Civil Liberties Union":
On a personal level, however, he sometimes acquiesced to segregation. In May 1943, Herskovits asked friends on the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to submit his "name for a non-resident membership in the [Cosmos] Club," a segregated club in Washington DC. (p.131)
Such stark contradictions also arose within Herskovits's intellectual endeavours, as he apparently "abhorred European scholars who worked for the state, particularly anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, whom he believed acted in service to imperialist governments and not a search for truth." Gershenhorn continues: "Somewhat inconsistently, Herskovits argued that American anthropologists who cooperated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs were doing the right thing because Franklin Roosevelt's administration, unlike the imperialist governments of Europe, was 'unequivocally on the side of the native [Indian].'" In a similar vein, it is fitting that another liberal imperialist, Gunnar Myrdal, critiqued Herskovits's book The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) in his own influential book, An American Dilemma (1944), and "characterized Herskovits as one of several 'Negro History propagandists.'" These criticism are especially ironic given that Myrdal's book was the end product of a major study of the negro problems in the United States devised and funded by the Carnegie Corporation, which had "briefly considered" appointing Herskovits to head the study before settling on a more impartial foreign director, Myrdal, who was appointed to head the study in 1938. (10)
Herskovits's ability to act as a gatekeeper of the left provided an indispensable service for foundation elites, which was all the more effective owing to his ability to garner the limited support of even Marxist intellectuals; for example, both Woodson and Du Bois "endorsed" his influential book The Myth of the Negro Past. Interestingly, not long before this, in the late 1930s, "Herskovits argued that the views of Carter Woodson and Du Bois must be considered 'inadmissible' [for the Myrdal's Carnegie study] because they were based on 'opinion and insufficient source materials.'" Thus, "[w]hen Du Bois and Woodson strenuously attacked the Rockefeller Foundation's support for industrial education and white-dominated knowledge production, they were marginalized [with the aid of white establishment intellectuals like Herskovits] as propagandists who lack true objectivity." Such attacks upon legitimate criticisms of the capitalist status meant that Woodson correctly thought that Herskovits "was another white paternalist intent on controlling black studies." (11) Goodson, however, did not limit his distaste with Herskovits's service to liberal elites and over the years he had regularly and honorably...
... fought those who he believed were trying to undermine black autonomy in politics and scholarship. He attacked Thomas Jesse Jones, the white education director of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, a philanthropy concerned with black education, after Jones wrote in 1917 an influential report that convinced many foundations to support black schools that emphasized vocational education and to withdraw from schools that stressed liberal arts education. Following Woodson's criticism of the report, Jones convinced many foundations, including the Rosenwald Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the General Education Board, to terminate foundation support for Woodson's association. Woodson viewed Jones's actions as evidence of whites' desire to control decisions about black education. Woodson also refused to surrender autonomy over the Journal of Negro History. He rejected the white philanthropies' recommendation that he affiliate with a black college, leading to the termination of any substantial foundation support after 1933. (p.145)
While Woodson's opposition to elite manipulation left him stranded without foundation support -- much like C. Wright Mills was isolated after he published The Power Elite (1953) -- W.E.B. Du Bois was able to put his differences aside in an attempt to collaborate on foundation projects. However, "[a]lthough Herskovits's relationship with Du Bois was outwardly less turbulent that with Woodson, it was also beset by conflict." Gershenhorn suggests that such hostility on the part of Herskovits was evident "most notably in the case of the Encyclopedia of the Negro Project." This project had a particularly significant history as the idea for creating an Encyclopedia Africana had initially been that of Du Bois who had pushed the idea in 1909 but had been unsuccessful in obtaining the requisite foundation funding that was needed for such an ambitious undertaking. (12)
By 1931 the time was now judged ripe for creating the Encyclopedia and the idea was revived by Anson Phelps Stokes, the white president of the Phelps-Stokes Fund. However, this time around, it was hoped that only responsible members of the knowledge-producing sector would be involved. This necessarily excluded radical intellectuals, and Thomas Jesse Jones ensured that Du Bois and Woodson were excluded from the initial project meeting. As one might expect, justifying such prominent intellectual exclusions on such a large project was not as easy as it might sound, and as a direct result of vocal protest from black participants Du Bois and Woodson were invited to later meetings. Woodson, however, "declined [the offer] and proceeded to denounce the project as an attempt to undercut his own encyclopedia project." On the other hand: "Fairly quickly," Du Bois despite "his disgust" with the crude political maneuvers to detach him from the project decided to accept the proffered invitation and joined the proceedings. Thereafter, he rapidly "assumed a prominent position within the project, operating as second in command to Stokes and winning the position as editor, largely due to the strong support from the black members of the board who would not 'even consider any other choice.'" (13)
Du Bois's involvement in the project, especially at such a high level, was actively opposed by Herskovits, though not openly (and Herskovits had even cynically offered to cooperate with Du Bois), but Du Bois apparently remained unaware of Herskovits's backroom dealings that "derail[ed] efforts by the encyclopedia board to move the project forward." (14) Indeed, by fanning fires of discontent ("conspiring with his friend Donald Young of the SSRC"), Herskovits actually helped to ensure that foundation funders pulled out of the Encyclopedia project, and in April 1934 "the General Education Board denied the encyclopedia project's request for funding." Likewise, the Carnegie Corporation "refused to finance the project." Such active attempts to undermine the project continued and by the mid-1930s, "In view of foundation opposition and the continuing depression, the encyclopedia board decided to postpone future funding requests pending more preliminary work." The project continued, but in 1941 the GEB and the Carnegie Corporation again "declined Stokes's request for $16,000 each to get the encyclopedia started"; (15) and as Gershenhorn writes of Herskovits's continued work to derail the project:
Although there is no other direct record of additional correspondence by Herskovits on the subject, other evidence indicates that he continued to work to undermine the project. In 1951, black historian Rayford Logan recorded in his journal a conversation that took place at a luncheon that he attended with Herskovits, Ray Billington, Richard Leopold, Joseph Greenberg, and Edgar T. Thompson, editor of Race Relations and the Race Problem. Logan wrote, "In the course of the conversation Mel [Herskovits] brought up the question of the Encyclopedia of the Negro. I remarked to Mel that he did not know the history of previous efforts. 'Oh yes, I do,' said Mel. 'I was the hatchet man, don't you remember?' I pretended to remember. But I learned then for the first time who had killed the project just when we (Dr. Du Bois and I) felt certain that the Carnegie Foundation [sic] was going to give the project $150,000." Herskovits's comment to Logan indicated that he believed Logan would have opposed the project as he and some of the other younger black intellectuals did. But while [Ralph] Bunche and [E. Franklin] Frazier opposed the project, Logan supported it. Moreover, Logan has assisted Du Bois on the project. Either Herskovits was unaware of this fact, which seems unlikely, or he was demonstrating his arrogance. (p.156)
Following on from such stellar contributions to foundation activism, Herskovits continued to be a "key player in the development of foundation-backed African studies programs" in the United States, and during the 1930s and 1940s he served as an adviser to the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Moreover, by 1948 he had set up the "first major interdisciplinary African studies" program; in the early 1950s he was the key academic adviser on Africa to the Ford Foundation, and in 1957 "he played a pivotal role in the establishment of the African Studies Association (ASA) and became its first president." It is clear that Herskovits's scholarship fulfilled a critical role for capitalist elites during his fruitful academic career, but the irony is that he actually saw himself as a defender of freedom and liberty. As Gershenhorn writes: "His beliefs in egalitarianism and cultural relativism convinced him to reject racial hierarchies, to oppose the notion of universal values, and to argue that no outsider could objectively evaluate another culture." (16) Yet, unfortunately, these were the characteristics that rendered Herskovits the perfect theorist of imperialist power brokers, which ultimately enabled him to help enforce and legitimate oppressive capitalist cultural hegemony worldwide.
If you find Michael Barker's work valuable, please consider
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Michael Barker 2010. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author
Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)
2. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.28, p.29.
For more detailed criticisms of the influence of liberal foundations on academia, see Michael Barker, "Progressive Social Change In The 'Ivory Tower'? A Critical Reflection on the Evolution of Activist Orientated Research in US Universities," Swans Commentary, December 1, 2008; Nana Osei-Kofi , "Coercion, Possibility, or Context? Questioning the Role of Private Foundations in American Higher Education," Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 31 (1), February 2010, pp.17-28.
Lee Baker writes: "In 1916 the NRC was established as part of a national war-readiness program, and it organized the Committee on Anthropology to help fulfill its mission. Boas was an adamant pacifist and an outspoken critic of the war. He was a German Jew and obdurate in his stance against eugenics, which the NRC seemed to take as its research program of choice. Scholars likes Charles B. Davenport, Madison Grant, and Ales Hrdlicka were all influential in organizing the NRC's Committee on Anthropology. The committee was actually organized to opposed [Boas's influential] Columbia group." Lee Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (University of California Press, 1998), pp.148-9. (back)
3. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.31, p.30. Lee Baker notes that around the year 1904: "The relationship Boas formed with Du Bois and the NAACP alienated him from the accomodationist wing of the movement [for racial equality] led by Washington and financed by Andrew Carnegie. It, in effect, cut Boas off from possible funding from Carnegie." Baker, From Savage to Negro, p.120. (back)
10. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.129, p.113, p.95. "The Carnegie Corporation study evolved from a suggestion in 1935 by Newton Baker, a Carnegie Corporation trustee and the former secretary of war under Woodrow Wilson, that the Executive committee of the Carnegie Corporation consider a study of 'the general question of negro education and negro problems, with special reference to conditions in the Northern states.' Under the leadership of former Columbia College dean and ex-assistant secretary of war Frederick P. Keppel, from 1923 to 1942 the Carnegie Corporation -- formed in 1911 be steel magnate Andrew Carnegie -- focused its energies on finding 'ways to disseminate traditionally elite culture to a large number of people.' ... Baker's recommendation was driven by his concern about the Great Depression's deleterious impact on the already dire economic conditions experienced by many African Americans. Fearing that blacks' feelings of desperation would ignite race riots, Baker -- who opposed the federal intervention of the New Deal- believed that localities and philanthropies should take action." (p.94) "Although the Carnegie Corporation did not set a total budget for the two-to-three-year study, the foundation hoped that following Myrdal's preliminary investigations, the budget could be kept under $75,000. Ultimately, the project cost $250,000." (p.96) For a more detailed review of the criticisms of the Carnegie Corporation study, see "Liberal Foundations and Anti-Racism Activism." (back)
11. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.111, p.106, p.144, p.146. "[F]oundations had no interest in funding African American scholars who could not be relied on to follow the U.S. State Department's Cold War line, which included support for its European allies who sought to perpetuate their imperialist domination in Africa. [St. Clair] Drake and [Horace Mann] Bond, who made no secret of their advocacy for African independence movements, were particularly suspect." Horace Mann Bond was the president of Lincoln University, and St. Clair Drake was an anthropologist based at Chicago's Roosevelt University. "In 1962 Drake noted that Roosevelt's African Studies program was never funded by the foundations because it was 'one of the few programs which [had] always frankly stated its support for African nationalist movements in addition to carrying out academic studies. Because of this, we... never received any support from the foundations.'"
"Black organizations that acquiesced to the Cold War calculations of U.S. foreign policy received significant funding. For example, the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC), headed by John A. Davis, received funding covertly from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1961 AMSAC addressed the issue of the role black scholars should play with regard to working with U.S. government agencies such as the CIA and their policy initiatives. The AMSAC report justified working for government agencies because 'intelligence work has to be done. If you don't agree to do this, there is a possibility that, as a scholar, you may be cut out of some of the plums that are available through government and foundation grants.'" Jerry Gershenhorn, "'Not An Academic Affair': African American Scholars and the Development of African Studies Programs in the United States, 1942-1960," Journal of African American History, 94, 2009, p.46, p.59, p.60. (back)
13. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.149. "From the outset the project was suffused with controversy. The key issues were white versus black control and influence on the project, race-bound definitions of objectivity, and the question of activist scholarship." (p.148) "Both Woodson and Du Bois had opposed the influence of Jones since his 1917 report recommending foundation support of vocational education, not liberal arts education, for blacks." (p.149) Herskovits was excluded from the planning meetings as well, but was countered as an advisor to the project. (back)
14. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.155. "By 1939 Du Bois had learned of Herskovits's reservations about the project and tried to reassure Herskovits of his intentions to be fair-minded. Du Bois told Herskovits, 'I can assure you that... a proper balance will be maintained between the claims of philanthropy on the one hand and the scientific demands of sociology and anthropology.' Du Bois, however, maintained that the job of editing an encyclopedia required that the editorial staff be responsible for the 'practical editing... and upon this I am going to insist.' Herskovits replied that he was pleased that Stokes would be consulted and that he only wanted to be consulted on who would be writing anthropology articles." That said, Gershenhorn continues noting that: "Nevertheless, Herskovits continued to criticize the project." (pp.154-5) (back)
15. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.150, p.153, p.155. "E. Franklin Frazier and Ralph Bunche criticized the project along similar lines as Herskovits." (p.151) (back)
16. Gershenhorn, Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, p.9, p.169, p.10. "Sociologist and former State Department official William Brown, who had just headed up Boston University's new African Studies program, replaced Herskovits in 1953 as the key academic adviser on Africa to the Ford Foundation." Gershenhorn, "Not An Academic Affair," p.54. (back)