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© Frank


Tinkering Around the Edges

by Alice O'Connor
May 11, 2021

This interview with Alice O’Connor, professor of history at UCSB, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Alice | I teach and write about the history of social policy in the 20th and 21st century in relation to social science and knowledge creation, but more broadly, the dynamics of social policy, inequality, and wealth and poverty. I am also the director of the UCSB Blum Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy. 

frank | What do you think about the inception of philanthropy in the U.S. – and how were the goals of philanthropy defined?

The model of philanthropy that prevails in the U.S. today — dominated by big, well-endowed, and (though they wouldn’t admit this) politically powerful foundations — traces its roots to the late 19th and the early 20th-century era of Gilded Age fortunes.  Then, as now, the rise of this kind of institutionalized philanthropy was an expression of the prerogatives of capital.  That was the core of Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, which is still invoked as a kind of founding document for modern philanthropy, and was all about asserting the superiority of capitalism, individualism, and the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

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Douglass, Neal. The Austin ClubphotographDecember 14, 1949; ( May 11, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

But that founding era was also a period of vast economic restructuring, displacement, and increasingly visible inequality — and the mass mobilization of labor, socialist, and progressive movements that threatened the power of capital.  So even as Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and their peers sought to use their foundations to put a benign face on concentrated capitalist fortunes, others turned to philanthropy as an institutional venue for reform, and to lay the critical intellectual groundwork for the welfare/regulatory state. That was the case with the Russell Sage Foundation, the early history of which I wrote about in Social Science for What?.  While itself veering between applied social work and progressive reform in the decades following its founding in 1907, it served as a kind of hub for a number of progressive reform causes.  

In this sense, this foundational era of modern philanthropy was about softening the blows and reining in the excesses of capitalism — albeit without questioning, in fact preserving, the fundamentals of a capitalist economy.  

Philanthropy was also a way of recognizing, as many more radical movements were at the time, that democracy was unsustainable with such high levels of inequality and unregulated capitalist growth. 

The threat of socialism in the late 19th and early 20th century was seen as real. Philanthropy joined in the effort to realize a degree of redistribution and regulation without looking to socialist alternatives. 

Sounds familiar: rising inequality, the perceived threat of socialism, etc. What do you think is similar and different about The Gilded Age and this New Gilded Age?

The similarities are striking.  In addition to the immense concentration of wealth and monopolistic corporate power, our two Gilded Ages have been periods of intensified state-sponsored anti-Black violence — the new and old Jim Crow — and of politically mobilized anti-immigrant sentiment, some of it fueled by economic dislocation and insecurity.  Striking though these and other parallels are, I think it's important to recognize how structures of intersectional inequality work differently today — often taking the form of highly selective or partial inclusion, or the mantle of so-called “color-blind” meritocracy or some other supposedly race and gender “neutral” mechanisms of containment and control.  So, much as I appreciate the power of invoking Jim Crow to call out racist policies and practices — and that is certainly apt in the face of the virulent voter suppression campaigns we’re witnessing today — it is important to recognize critical differences and shifts in the mechanisms of racial exclusion and control, such as the degree to which they are cast in the logic and language of market efficiency.  

We’re also in a very different, if in some ways parallel moment in the political and ideological configuration of resistance and reform.  

The limitations of the philanthropic reform project are especially apparent in the face of the extreme inequality, militarized policing, and rampant privatization entrenched in the neoliberal state.  

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[Arlington Crime Prevention Unit van, 1970s], photograph, 197X; ( accessed May 11, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Arlington Public Library.

At the same time, the broadly social-democratic left has been fundamentally reframing the conversation about what intersectional democracy looks like, in grassroots organizing as well in electoral politics. Advocates of police and prison abolition argue that public safety requires massive public reinvestment in historically marginalized communities.  The idea isn’t new, but it is making headway that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.  I see it as one example of how community-based social justice movements, in particular, are pushing toward a state that supports and is accountable to a democratic polity.     

How do you see nationalism and the perceived threat of immigration engrained in the philanthropic project? 

American philanthropy has a long history of support for eugenics — the pseudoscience that undergirded white supremacist thought and justified racially restrictive immigration policies, sterilization, and other forms of forced reproductive control, among other measures designed to preserve a “better,” which is to say white, breed of American.  Fears of white “race suicide” and displacement by an immigrant-fueled mixed-race majority were never far beneath the surface, and as we can see, they remain a potent political force today. 

Foundations were also invested in assimilationist thought, and funding for Americanization programs that aimed to teach new immigrants to embrace values and cultural practices associated with whiteness. 

That was very much embedded in the original philanthropic project. Philanthropy has not really grappled with the implications of the legacies of these and other expressions of its commitment to white supremacy, nationalist ideology, or of perpetuating whiteness as normative — nor the degree to which social policies have been structured around those commitments. 

It seems there are people, even on the right, who are willing to embrace welfare policies when they're seen as being for “you” and “your people” – but as soon as the definition of who benefits expands, progress stalls. 

I would agree but I’d also push the point further, to recognize that, historically, even incremental moves toward racial and intersectional democracy have sparked a backlash against those policies and countermobilizations that don’t just limit but actively undermine the democratic project.  It’s no coincidence that the movement to reform and ultimately to end welfare started to gain momentum in national politics only after women of color began to benefit from the program in greater numbers.  Today’s voter suppression campaigns build on a long history of active disenfranchisement in the wake of any kind of voting or civil rights gain — an issue that foundations were reluctant to approach until after the passage of federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s.  

The larger point is that building multi-racial democracy is really hard. And if your starting point is offering inclusion to institutions and processes that are themselves based on the values and norms of whiteness, and of maintaining white privilege, that will come back to haunt you. A big part of the story of the 20th century is this failure to reckon with the degree to which our cherished institutions of democracy and of capitalist enterprise were themselves embedded in structurally racist policies. 

And philanthropy is about tinkering around the edges, rather than getting at real, structural problems. 

So it is something that philanthropy has never fully grappled with.

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KXAS-TV (Television station : Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Clip: Conservatives]videoOctober 25, 1982, 6:00 p.m.; Fort Worth, Texas. ( May 11, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.

Do you think it's grappling with that now?

Well, I think it is being pushed to. Especially with the emergence of more and more critiques that point to the basic contradiction at the heart of the philanthropic project: the claims philanthropy makes about promoting equality even as by its nature philanthropy depends on inequality for its very existence. 

The big foundations that dominate the philanthropic landscape are creatures of extraordinary run-ups of wealth inequality and concentration, and yet the “problem” of inequality provides them with a rationale. They exist to "solve" the problems of inequality. There's this great contradiction there. I think they're being pushed, but I'm not quite sure how far that is going to go. It is hard to tell.

One thing that seems to be a big priority amongst emerging grassroots movements is having people push past shame and rally around being poor as part of their identity. The Poor People's Campaign does this effectively. I wonder how philanthropy contributes to how we conceptualize class status?

Well philanthropy, even though a core focus is ameliorating the conditions of poverty, in a lot of ways does so in a way that mitigates a class project like the one the Poor People’s Campaign is currently working toward. The philanthropy approach is about creating certain conditions that will give people better opportunities within the existing system. It is a highly individualized way of thinking about what it means to be poor and about what poverty means, rather than demanding power and systemic change the way the Poor People's Campaign is. 

Having people identify as “poor,” or acknowledging that they experience poverty, is also about challenging the stubborn myth that poverty is about some isolated group of “other” people, a condition that is and should be morally and socially stigmatized.  The reality is that poverty is a structural feature of our political economy, which relies on low-wage and precarious work conditions for its decidedly unshared prosperity.  The media coverage of the American Rescue Act tended to reinforce this myth by framing it as a measure that would “lift” millions of families “out of poverty” and cut the child poverty rate in half.  The reality is that what makes this an effective anti-poverty policy is not that it will make some submerged group of poor people suddenly not poor (especially if that simply means putting their incomes above the hopelessly inadequate poverty line) but that it recognizes the extent and scope of economic precarity that exists throughout the bottom half of the income distribution and vastly expands the safety net in response.  Important though its provisions are, we need much more than an expanded safety net to address the poverty and precarity that remain economic facts of life for millions.  

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Douglass, Neal. [State Department of Public Welfare]photographSeptember 24, 1951; ( May 11, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Do you think the public perception of the government's ability to move levers and change people's lives has changed with the pandemic? Do you think what we demand of the government will change? 

I think that comes back to this really fraught question of how do we actually build a democratic state? And one I think the left could use some more time talking about. 

For years, the right has been saying the government is bloated and the government is a failure, even though of course they rely on government intervention as much as anybody else. 

I think it is important to come back to the question of whether it is possible to have a critical perspective on the democratic state, yet still, understand what the project of democratic statism aspires to. Now seems like a pretty good moment to revisit that.

I think that is what the Poor People's Campaign is doing and something I really appreciate about them. They are making very visible and vocal connections between voting, political participation, and the fight against poverty. 

There was a surge, in the seventies and the eighties, of heavily ideological, right-wing, philanthropy groups. Why does that happen, and is there a specific ideological wing that you think holds the most power in these foundations now? 

If you ask the foundations on the right, they would say that they have never been the heavyweights in the philanthropic world. They would say that this space has always been dominated by the left and point to the Gates Foundation, Rockefeller, Ford Foundation, the post-1945 Carnegie Foundation, among others as examples of the liberal hold on philanthropy and on the public conversation about policy, in fact on the whole apparatus of policymaking, and certainly on the think tank world.

And this whole idea that there's a vast liberal establishment that was in control of the political and media conversation among other things, was a big part of the founding narrative of the conservative movement. 

One part of that narrative was the claim that liberal philanthropic dollars were being used to undermine capitalism.  Right-wing business leaders, in turn, were mobilized to use their philanthropic dollars strategically, explicitly ideologically, and moralistically, to save free enterprise from the threat of what movement activists depicted as creeping socialism. That is the narrative they created and organized around in the 1970s.

And today, we can see how the movement ideology that informed right-wing philanthropy became institutionalized in the way they used it to fund a now extensive and highly influential network of right-wing think tanks and legal institutions like the Federalist Society. They have tried to mirror the liberal establishment by creating this conservative counter-establishment. 

Screen Shot 2021 05 11 at 9.04.08 AM

Screen Shot 2021 05 11 at 9.04.08 AM

KXAS-TV (Television station : Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Clip: Conservatives]videoOctober 25, 1982, 6:00 p.m.; Fort Worth, Texas. ( May 11, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.

In terms of who is leading the way these days, I mean, the right was able to leverage outsized power, partly because they were willing to be strategically ideological and tap into the energized conservative movement activism in a way that liberal establishment foundations have historically shied away from.  The Koch brothers are a good example of this, but they are hardly alone.

Some historians point to this contradiction that liberals are really valued – this idea of fairness and decency and “both sides” are traditional liberal values, whereas the movement conservatives are willing to break the rules. One gains power and one doesn't. 

I think one thing the rise of the right demonstrates is that there is power in the willingness to use and to overlook contradictions. This has been a signature feature of the conservative movement, with its marriage of free-market anti-statism and disciplinary social policy, and of plutocratic economics and populist outrage. That is why it's a little bit hard to take the conservative anti-Trumpers who are now suddenly discovering that they have a soul seriously when for a long time they were willing to look the other way and create fake ideological consistency in order to gain power.

There is also a place to criticize liberal mainstream institutions on this “both sides” front. They responded to these really deep and profound ideological challenges from the right by essentially accommodating the movement and continuing to insist on their model of maintaining neutrality and pluralism in the name of supporting the ultimate triumph of evidence over ideology. 

At the same time, in terms of politics, the so-called “new” Democrats went out of their way to avoid what George H.W. Bush called the ‘L word’ and set out to create a political majority by courting the suburban vote, without actually really looking at the degree to which this whole idea of maintaining ideological neutrality is not particularly viable and not particularly an accurate recognition of what they had been about from the start.  In fact, the now-infamous Clintonian ‘triangulation’ strategy was a way to create a distance from, if not an outright abandonment, of the party’s New Deal commitments — to labor, to so-called “big government,” and at least putatively, to making capitalism accountable to democratic norms. 

The internal contradictions of the New Deal order, from its compromises with capitalism to its accommodation of white supremacist demands, continue to hamper the would-be coalition for intersectional social and economic democracy.  One of the most significant developments in recent politics is the emergence of a widening cohort of activists, including elected representatives, who are willing to take those contradictions on.