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The privilege of being privileged

The Ford Foundation believes we have an obligation to strengthen capitalism. In fact we have a duty to transform it.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Credit: Joi Ito/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

It takes a special sort of chutzpah, as we say in New York, to deliver a homily on privilege from the summit of the Ford Foundation. So kudos to Ford’s President Darren Walker who has done just this in his latest annual letter. “Privilege allied with ignorance,” he writes, “has become an equally pernicious, and perhaps more pervasive, enemy to justice,” before going on to focus on disability as a missing piece in the Ford Foundation’s jigsaw of diversity.

If people are concerned about privilege, of course, there’s an obvious solution—just give it up: spend out your wealth, roll up your sleeves, and get involved in building alternatives which don’t start from the same position. If you don’t like privilege then don’t create or sustain it. Focus instead on building a system that produces less of the stuff in the first place. Problem solved.

But Walker takes a different approach. “The paradox of privilege,” he writes, “is that it shields us from fully experiencing or acknowledging inequality, even while giving us more power to do something about it.” In other words, privilege is not a problem but a puzzle, just as inequality represents an opportunity not just a threat—because it creates the conditions for more philanthropy.

This has been a consistent theme in Walker’s writings, including the “New Gospel of Wealth” which launched the Ford Foundation’s return to a focus on inequality in 2015. We have an “obligation to capitalism” he writes, since capitalism is what created the Foundation in the first place, and it’s what makes philanthropy “both possible and necessary. I believe we are obligated to strengthen and improve the system of which we are part. Philanthropy’s role is to contribute to the flourishing of the far greater part—to help foster a stronger safety net and a level playing field.”

Walker takes this position to extremes in defending Mark Zuckerberg’s $44 billion fortune in an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, on the grounds that it will “spur imaginative solutions” to the great problems of our times—like the $3 billion investment in new medical technologies recently announced by the Facebook CEO and his wife, Priscilla Chan. So long as those at the top of the tree give something back to society then the system will improve—even if it continues to produce great costs and inequalities in the process.

In developing this position Walker sits squarely within the traditions of American liberalism, with its belief that promoting equality of opportunity within the current economic and political system is the best response to its failings. Everyone should have the same chance to be privileged, you might say, so that they can use their privilege to attack privilege more efficiently.

There’s some logic to this line of reasoning, but it rests on two questionable assumptions.

The first is that generating more philanthropy is effective as a route to reducing inequality. If it isn’t, then the intellectual scaffolding supporting Walker’s arguments collapses, because the problems of capitalism can never be addressed regardless of how many new philanthropists it creates. At the macro level however, societies that are most dependent on philanthropy like the USA are also the most unequal and vice versa—it’s the social democracies of Scandinavia that have the highest levels of equality and wellbeing, where the foundation sector is very small.

Tax-funded, redistributive government; people-funded, independent civil society action; and dynamic but well-regulated businesses are far more important. It was the same story in America under the New Deal and the Great Society, which kept economic inequality at much lower levels before the new gilded age began around the turn of the Millennium. In fact in the US, philanthropy has increased in line with inequality over the last 50 years, so the more you have of one, the more you have of the other. Statistically speaking, philanthropy is a symptom of inequality and not a cure.

But that’s far too crude, you might say. What’s more important is the evidence at the micro-level that shows all the good things foundations are supporting (including openDemocracy, where you’re reading this). Unfortunately the conclusion is the same: there’s no evidence that this support has had any significant effect on economic inequality since Ford and the others were established. Of course, the past isn’t necessarily an accurate guide to the future—maybe foundations will find a magical solution that turns these findings on their heads—but for now, the many small successes don’t add up to anything that’s powerful enough to halt society’s slide into a permanent division between the one per cent and the other 99.

If that’s the case, then Walker’s second assumption doesn’t add up either: we don’t have ‘an obligation to strengthen capitalism’ as he puts it, we have a duty to transform it, since that’s the only way to attack inequality and privilege at their source. Otherwise the runaway train of inequality will keep on disappearing into the distance even as we re-double our efforts to catch up with it. Instead, we have to alter the production and distribution of wealth and power in fundamental ways—who owns what, who gets what, who pays what and who makes decisions. No more $44 billion fortunes, and enough shared wealth for everyone to be their own philanthropist. The changing structure of work and the rise of the tech economy complicate the answers to these questions, but they don’t change the questions themselves or the imperatives of transformation.

This is where privilege is incredibly important. Privilege imposes all sorts of conscious and unconscious filters that frame each potential course of action as realistic or utopian, effective or superficial. Even the evidence about ‘what works’ is processed through these filters. The world looks very different from the top and bottom of the pile, but if the supply of money for social change is controlled by those at the top then only a restricted range of possibilities will be supported—and they won’t include transforming the system that put them there in the first place: there’s way too much to lose.

That’s because transformative solutions rely on sacrifice, sharing and radical equality so that the interests of the ‘non-privileged’ are prioritized and actualized at every step—the millions of people who do the work of justice and caring and organizing and protesting and governing and creating and performing on a daily basis. Liberalism keeps the relationships between money and social change pretty much as they are, doling out a few more crumbs from the rich man’s table in the hope that they’ll eventually make a cake. Transformative approaches accept that the cake must be baked from a whole new recipe that restructures those relationships, opening the way for more radical solutions to gain support.

This is immensely demanding work both personally—in making equality the default setting of our lives—and politically, in reinventing institutions like the Ford Foundation so that they can practice what they preach. At present, their strategies are incompatible with the goals of transformation because privilege, inequality and control are hardwired into their structure, governance and operations. It’s that sense of privilege that sees public schools and low-income communities as laboratories for foundation-funded experiments, or convinces philanthropists that they know best even though their on-the-ground experience is generally so limited, or simply that your phone call or proposal don’t merit a response. Privilege is rarely more seductive than when cloaked in altruistic garb.

To his credit, Walker recognizes many of these issues in his letter. “By acknowledging my individual privilege and ignorance,” he writes, “I began to more clearly perceive the Ford Foundation’s institutional privilege and ignorance as well. Transformation starts with acknowledging our own fallibility and deficiencies. To do this, we need to put aside our pride. We need to open our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts in order to embrace a complete and intersectional view of inequality. Only when we permit ourselves to be equal parts vigilant and vulnerable, can we model the kind of honest self-reflection we hope to see across our society. Empathy and humility must be among justice’s greatest allies.”

I think that’s true. However, it doesn’t matter how much empathy and humility you have if you’re not willing to tackle the structural factors that create so much privilege in the first place. For Ford, it seems that every other form of inequality can and should be challenged, whether it’s based on race, gender, sexuality, income, geography or disability, but the structure of the economic system—the biggest privilege-producing machine on the planet—must be preserved.

As Walker’s letter shows, some foundations are recognizing that their current models aren’t working very well, but their search for alternatives is restricted to a narrow band that can’t provide the answers. Renouncing privilege is central to widening that band, so Walker is right to place this issue front and center. But privilege isn’t actually a puzzle—it just takes courage to let it go and work from a different place.

In that respect, Walker quotes the writings of James Baldwin with admiration, but another social justice icon, Audre Lorde, is a better guide to the Ford Foundation’s future. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” as she put it in 1979. Imagine what would happen if we re-configured the supply of money for social change with that advice in mind? It would mean the wholesale transformation of institutional philanthropy, since for Ford and others like it an assault on privilege is essentially an assault upon themselves.

Future annual letters should make for interesting reading.

About the author

Michael Edwards is a writer and activist based in upstate New York, and the editor of Transformation. His website is and his twitter account is @edwarmi.

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