Ford Foundation President Darren Walker found himself in the unusual position late last month of apologizing for political incorrectness. “In a recent interview, I used the term ‘tone deaf’ inappropriately & out of context from its literal definition,” he began a Twitter thread. “I am deeply sorry for using this ableist language & apologize to the millions of people with disabilities and the disability community.”
Walker then references the foundation’s “commitment to advancing justice and dignity for all people” and his “own change journey to learn & understand more about the critical nature of justice and disability,” and writes that his “use of this phrase as a pejorative was insensitive & undermines our intent to advance disability justice & inclusion.
“I am deeply sorry and personally pledge to do better,” he concludes.
Walker’s verbal misstep had come when he had suggested that it would be “tone deaf” for the National Gallery of Art to proceed, in today’s racially fraught climate, with a long-planned major exhibition of works by renowned artist Philip Guston. Although Guston himself is an anti-racist, as the Washington Post’s art critic Sebastian Smee explained, in his late work, Guston had “used cartoonlike versions of Ku Klux Klan hoods as raw but complex symbols, which might be seen as offensive.”
So in shying away from a potential racial insensitivity, Walker had managed to back into an actual ableist insensitivity.
As this incident suggests, American philanthropy is increasingly steeped in the theory and practice of social justice. That brings with it severe demands on not just what we do, but how we talk about it—indeed, so severe that even the president of the most culturally avant garde foundation in the land has difficulty navigating its strictures.
This threatens to undermine one of the most-promising features of social justice’s displacement of “strategic philanthropy” as the dominant framework for grantmaking.
As I’ve argued in the past, strategic philanthropy deserves to be displaced. It’s not only unlikely to produce the world-altering measurable outcomes it has promised. It also tends to disqualify from funding the nonprofits that are most likely to be truly effective.
As Robert Woodson argues, those are the smaller, local, grassroots groups organized by everyday citizens closest to and most affected by the problem to be solved. They have come up with thoughtful and effective solutions to those problems, uniquely tailored to the specific circumstances of the community, and reflecting their own moral and spiritual principles.
But institutional philanthropy has typically ignored these groups. According to the practitioners of strategic philanthropy, what’s needed to attack problems are elaborate “theories of change” and “logic models” reflecting the latest professional techniques and social-science findings. Only the largest and most-sophisticated nonprofits can afford the sizable professional staffs where such expertise is commonplace, and where the highly refined, complex language of strategic philanthropy is spoken.
Grassroots groups typically don’t have the time or the university-taught expertise to meet these demanding technical requirements, or to acquire proficiency in the appropriate technical language. Everyday nonprofits naively assume that if they approach a foundation with a straightforward, non-technical description of the problem to be solved and the way they go about that, a foundation might be interested. But the lack of verbal skills in the ways of strategic philanthropy presents an insurmountable barrier for applicants. The fact that smaller nonprofits often ascribe their motivation to idiosyncratic cultural or religious understandings only further alienates them from the thoroughly secular funder.
This is where the social-justice approach to philanthropy promises relief. It accurately points out that strategic philanthropy itself reflects a limited and particularistic understanding of knowledge, and that it has a worldview often intolerant of the cultures and values of marginalized communities.
However much it promises objectively to address broad social ills, strategic philanthropy in fact concentrates power in the hands of well-paid and -educated foundation elites, who define problems in ways congenial to themselves. The fact that philanthropy’s highly technical practice and language systematically excludes nonprofits arising from within marginalized communities and reflecting non-scientific values isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.
Social-justice advocates insists that this arises from the effort of philanthropy elites to preserve white supremacy. But I’m inclined to view it as a feature of the 20th Century progressive project. Progressives sought to shift power away from everyday civic groups, typically mired in what seemed parochial, irrational religious and cultural beliefs, into the allegedly more-capable hands of public-spirited professional elites.
At any rate, the social-justice critique promises to reverse this. It pledges to move power out of the hands of distant elites, back into those of local groups driven by beliefs that have traditionally been overlooked. Social justice accords a privileged role to those with “lived experience” in the communities to be assisted, rather than to those with only detached, theoretical knowledge.
Ideally, this would benefit the grassroots groups championed by Woodson as well as by structural-racism critics.
A “new boss”
But only ideally. The problem, as evidenced by Walker’s misadventure with the new modes of discourse, is that the arcane, demanding jargon of strategic philanthropy is being replaced by an equally arcane, demanding jargon of social justice.
Just as one has to secure a degree in nonprofit management and attend innumerable technical trainings to learn the language of logic models and theories of change, so one must go through university courses in structural racism and receive hours of instruction from “diversity, equity, and inclusion” consultants to master the new discourse of oppression.
Everyday grassroots leaders, seeking only to address the immediate, practical problems of their neighborhoods, have as little time or resources for the latter as for the former.
The elitist character of social-justice discourse was taken up by Nicholas Claremont in a recent article in Tablet magazine, “The Language of Privilege.” Claremont suggests that “woke” discourse, while professing to be in the best interests of the oppressed, may in fact simply serve to mask further oppression.
Who does the woke playing field, as expressed through wokese, actually advantage? As a barrier to entry that is manufactured in universities, mediated by elite institutions and bureaucracies, and is intentionally complex and constantly changing, wokese is a tool that is most easily wielded by the credentialed elite—which suggests that the allegedly vulnerable cohorts in whose name this language is allegedly spoken are actually being used by others as rhetorical camouflage.
In reality, wokeness is a bourgeois sop to self-dealing millionaires. Why? Because those who already have the most resources and power are best positioned to game whatever new system comes about by throwing up obstacles that take training and money to navigate or overcome effectively. In fact, for them, the more obstacles in the course of advancement in any given field, the better.
I hope I’m wrong, but it looks as if, for grassroots nonprofits, social justice may simply prove to be the “new boss, same as the old boss” of strategic philanthropy, to paraphrase The Who. That’s certainly what Darren Walker’s experience suggests.