The Black Question: The Ford Foundation and the Cold War (1950-1970)

Ivor Abrahams, Baigneuses, 1983


Author's response to Mario Maestri's review

Mário Maestri's review of my book The Black Question: The Ford Foundation and the Cold War (1950-1970), published on the website the earth is round is organized around eight major premises, only one of which is strictly related to my work, since it is particularly dedicated to a speculative investigation of the (perhaps direct) responsibilities of Abdias Nascimento for the establishment, in Brazil, of the called “identitarianism”, which were not within my scope.

In this speculative exercise in which he inserts the reading of the black question, expressed at times prospectively, at times in an accusatory manner, he raises the following theses of interpretation:

(i) The promotion of Abdias Nascimento as a model leader would have changed the mostly socialist orientation of the Brazilian black movement, a process that helped to demolish the previous relevance and reputation of Clóvis Moura (incidentally, recently rediscovered).

(ii) Abdias Nascimento had helped to sustain in the public debate the precedence of race over class and, as a result, would have collaborated to minimize anti-capitalist struggles.

(iii) Abdias Nascimento would not be a majority leader in the black milieu, much less a mass leader. His aggrandizement is part of a posthumous and retroactive process.

(iv) The contemporary Brazilian black movement would be mostly Americanophile. In this Americanism, incorporated with few mediations through its leadership today based mainly on the middle classes, it follows, especially, liberal vanguard orientations, both progressive and non-progressive.

(v) The book the black question is of singular importance to understand the hegemony of “black identity” in Brazil. This phenomenon would have started with the destruction of radical Marxism as the foundation of the political and intellectual debate, and continued, through a strong movement of scheduling, regimentation and financing in recent decades, with the detachment of questions of race and class and with the downgrading of relevance of the latter. Among the consequences of this transformation would be the emergence of proposals such as multiculturalism, a new principle of population management and diversity control.

(vi) Racial miscegenation is a detection index of the social relevance that racism has in the life of societies. (vii) Florestan Fernandes, in his texts specializing in the racial and black issue, represented the local application of the guidelines of his time and intellectual field on how to integrate black people, improving, via processes of socio-political modernization, the development of order capitalist. (vii) Slavery is the backbone of Brazilian civilization, it shapes nationality and constitutes the principle on which the logic of sustaining our world of work was fundamentally built.

In the style of Machiavelli, I will start with the worst, to proceed towards the best, but little by little. I will start with point (vi), which is anathema to me. I echo the reasonable common sense words of 1964,[I] from the American anthropologist, also a Brazilianist, Marvin Harris: “It is high time that adult men stopped talking about racial prejudice in terms of sexuality. In general, when human beings have the power, the opportunity, and the need, they mate with members of the opposite sex without regard to color or the identity of the grandfather. Whenever free procreation in a population of human beings is restricted, it is because a larger system of social relations is considered threatened by such freedom”.[ii]

It is traditional in the Brazilian debate, from left to right, that the vaunted quality, more especially masculine than feminine, of miscibility, is praised as a compliment to the characteristically national qualities of human contact and relationship. In his 2015 doctoral thesis,[iii] historian Aruã Silva de Lima documented how the leading groups of the PCB (in the 1920s-1930s) were among the most resistant in the world to incorporate the orientations of the PCB itself. Comintern (the Third International), to recognize the agenda and organizational priority of racial and national minorities.

Incidentally, more resistant than the segregated South African PC, on the grounds that the issue did not appear to be problematic in the country and using, in support of this thesis, internal silencing measures. It is clear from this, not without a sad irony, that Gilberto Freyre, since then a kind of Brazilian civil religion, was and still is able to unite the national political spectrum around him.

Therefore, in this regard, I follow Pierre-André Taguieff, a French philosopher and historian for whom there is little or nothing to recover in the miscegenation of intrinsically anti-racist value. The common mistake, for him, is to consider racist traditions that have miscegenation as a central value, when compared to those that do not, as anti-racist expressions.[iv] Brazil, therefore, is no better in this respect than the United States; likewise, the opposite is not true either. Hence, I cannot refuse a delicate personal impression: after almost a century of debate, feeling that a link between Freyrianism and anti-racism since its origins, in the 1930s, already emphatically conservative sounds reactionary[v].

The various specific points (i-iii) about Abdias Nascimento, a dominant theme of Mário Maestri's observation and extemporaneous in relation to the object of the review, speak, above all, of the construction and growth of his agenda and leadership. Here, I refer to the consolidated bibliography, of an entire field of studies that includes, by way of example, the extensive thematic work of historians such as Petrônio Domingues, Amílcar Pereira and Paulina Alberto, and of the sociologist Mário Medeiros, documenting the existence of a diverse composition politics of the Brazilian black social movement in the XNUMXth century, uniting leftist tendencies to more conservative tendencies, in which socialists and communists, although eventually relevant, do not seem to have reached the full hegemonic condition.[vi] If this genre of literature, particularly for the period between 1930-1970, does not consider Abdias the only dominant leader, neither does it underestimate his relevance in this evaluation.

However, there was a transformation in the focus of organizations and the racial debate that took place throughout the 1970s, which only took full shape in Brazil between the 1980s and 1990s, which included the emergence of a rethinking of race and of the class, with sensitive consequences on the thematic agenda. And, here, there is a point: not all of this transformation was the result of scheduling or native organic growth, as there were various forms of merger, interaction and separation, in response to regimentation strategies.

Particularly in relation to the Ford Foundation, and with regard to Abdias Nascimento and the funding of his organization, the Institute of Research and Afro-Brazilian Studies (Ipeafro), the focus of this support was support for a whole new human rights program , programmed for the process of democratic transition after the declaration of amnesty, in 1979, which, in São Paulo, would coalesce, in this block that included Abdias, around PUC-SP and through the Justice and Peace Commission, with Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns. What it was up to Abdias to accomplish for the funder, what Abdias accomplished according to his own pretensions and whether what was intended by Fundação Ford and Abdias Nascimento was achieved, is an open question, not yet documented.

Even the material and theoretical relations that should articulate or disarticulate race and class take on renewed forms in relation to the orientation that the Ford Foundation practiced between the 1950s and 1970s. achievements of the organization in this field, the treatment of this disjunction and hierarchy between issues of race and class becomes more sophisticated in relation to the Ford Foundation's own tradition of considering that class is not and should not be politically structuring. That is why I consider that, although there was an eventual agreement with the Ford Foundation on how Abdias Nascimento dealt with the racial issue, perhaps his way, at some point in the 1980s, began to sound anachronistic for the Foundation, fueling its oscillating later interest – distancing which actually occurred, to some extent.

Abdias Nascimento was a believer in the notion that black liberation, an event that would require the prior formation of a community united around principles of political solidarity and moral and cultural interests of black nationalism, similar to what was practiced in trends Afrocentric politics in the US and in certain independenceist examples of African states, would generate the conditions for liberating other forms of inequity, classism, sexism, and so on. Racism would be a phenomenon directly associated with the formation principles of European civilization, and hence the response to it must be, above all, anti-Western by definition and, as an achievement and goal, above all by the “Africanization” of blacks and the world.

It is known that, in the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, in the USA, the Ford Foundation favored black organizations as beneficiaries in which, according to the Foundation's vision, perspectives of change were favored primarily in the order of mentalities and behaviors, avoiding solutions that involved direct political confrontation, including that of the State itself, a choice that was modeled, at the time, by the Black Panthers Party.

Whether this Ford Foundation model of choice was merely strategic or programmatic as well, as it developed through its new global policy for the defense of human rights, established after the second half of the 1970s,[vii] and how it was applied to its objects of interest in Brazil, already in the 1980s, are all open questions, and, unless I'm mistaken,[viii] still poorly documented.

Speaking of point (v), the one that directly concerns my book, I would say, in my defense, that the black question it is fundamental to understand, more than the “hegemony of black identity” – a very current event –, the resounding impact of the social sciences in the construction of theoretical and action anchors to generate adherence to the values ​​of organizations such as the Ford Foundation, this one, a long-term and permanent event. It is from the principle of organizations like the Ford Foundation to work for the generation of stabilizing social forces, through the reconstitution of our forms of representation, both in the sphere of power and in that of values.

Such organizations carry with them, in their originally anti-totalitarian, liberal and centrist sense of mission, that the politicization of racial issues is potentially disruptive; therefore, it deserves to be the object of acute interest and intervention, above all, through the proposition and international stimulus to political and social reform projects. To this end, the Ford Foundation has always defined that the social sciences should be a political and intellectual vanguard force in the development of a western capitalist civilization of well-being, carrying out work of institutional creation and protection of “values”.

The Ford Foundation has consciously helped shape and, more importantly, limits the political imagination by containing and organizing Black anger, hatred and resentment, creating, one might say, a scenario in which, instead of impaling whites, we're calling for industry-wide inclusion policies and treatment courtesies in line with our current poor republican norms.

Hence, I say: the left would certainly gain by understanding and sheltering this enormous energy and motivation currently oriented to the much-described “identitarianism”: organizing it, politicizing it, instead of rejecting it as just stupidity, alienation and manipulation. I assume, as a hypothesis, based on my (poor) personal impressions, that there is a bit of narcissism in this resistance.

That said, it is necessary to praise the courage of Mário Maestri, when he decides to ask himself, after all, what implications can be drawn from the association between the racial agenda of the 1950s and 1960s of the Ford Foundation and the specialized work of Florestan Fernandes in this field [point (vii)]. Indeed, a provision that most commentators of the black question it does not show why it is their custom to read the book as if separated into two unrelated parts. The first, most frequently mentioned, would be formed by the chapters that deal with the connection between the great American philanthropy, in particular the Ford Foundation, with the US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In critical commentaries, this segment of the book is often mentioned as the object of scandal and denunciation. The alleged second part of the black question, almost always ignored, would be formed by the chapters that deal specifically with the development of the black racial debate that the agenda formed by this Cold War front helped to formulate. Mário Maestri has the merit of considering the unity of the book, and, in his own way, drew the consequences of this common horizon in which the work of Florestan Fernandes and that of the Ford Foundation, as an institution, were composed.

My current position on how I consider this same web of agendas and relationships is expressed jointly with fellow historians Elizabeth Cancelli and Gustavo Mesquita in the books Cold War and Brazil: towards the integration agenda of blacks in class society and, in the recently released expanded version of this, Foundations, US Foreign Policy and Anti-racism in Brazil: Pushing Racial Democracy.[ix]

We consider that Florestan Fernandes displaced and split a Brazilian debate on racism and the black issue until then dominated by conservative positions, which were recognized in assessments of an exceptionally harmonious national form of social relations and in the absence of racism. Florestan pleaded for a greater politicization of the black question, claiming the intellectual bases of his then specialized reflection, the Chicago Sociological School's paradigm of race relations, as a reference for this shift.

He was betting on the fundamental assumption of this paradigm about the existence of an evolutionary cycle of racial relations, in which, given the right conditions, there would be, from an initial situation of complete exclusion or segregation or assimilation, but in conditions of subordination and domination, progressively, conflict, competition according to egalitarian norms, and later accommodation to some form of “integration”.

Rationalization and planning of social and economic life would create the civilizing environment in which conflicts would be dampened, accommodated in the establishment of reasonable forms of competition and access to resources, and, finally, integration of groups within a plural social environment reconstituted according to norms of diversity , matched by the boundaries of a comprehensive and expanded middle class. It is noteworthy that this ideal of social progress had come to be considered, moreover, as a requirement for the adequate respect and consolidation of human rights.

Commitment to this program of social progress would require a broad repositioning of blacks. According to Florestan Fernandes' proposal, a black mass movement should be established in the country. Led and guided by the values ​​of a black middle class, identified with contemporary ideals of modernization, this movement should reposition the black population as an organized minority, oriented to demand from Brazilian society the remission of its marginal condition, especially in the labor market.

For the sociologist, the claim that there was equality of competition opportunities, as a central motivation for black political action, and, in the sense of this objective, the need for reparatory policies, was justified due to the impact of these changes not only in the life of of blacks, but also and above all for the promise of transformation of Brazilian society as a whole.

The central goal of this program, the “proletarianization” of the black masses, would have a radical impact, according to Florestan: at the same time that it would eliminate the caste condition of the most numerous segment of the population, formally transforming it into a class, it would boost, with this change of condition, the very way in which capitalist development was carried out – either as a way of realizing economic life, or as a civil pact on the form that Brazilian civilization should take. It was hoped that this set of actions would finally put Brazil in a condition of competitive balance in its racial relations and in the benefits of an evolved capitalist society.

Such expectations were never fulfilled, even though people never dreamed about them so much.[X]

Responding to point (iv), already close to concluding my considerations, I would say that it would be impossible for me to assess the level of “Americanization” of the Brazilian black social movement, since I lack the documentary conditions for certification, although the impressions on this issue are quite strong. sense.[xi] Impressions can say a lot or nothing, but I do not consider the reception of any “influence” to be intrinsically bad, just because of its national origins.

I only mention, returning to something already said above, that the orientation towards the emergence of a black mass movement under the preferential leadership of its middle-class segment is present in The integration of black people into class society, 1964, and, in general terms, the proposed program for black politics continues without major changes in The Black in the World of Whites, from 1972, and in “25 years later: the black in the current era”, the balance made for the book Closed circuit, from 1976, in which Florestan Fernandes evaluated the successes and, mainly, the political limitations of black organizations, especially since the 1950s.[xii]

Finally, I conclude with two notes: one, of ignorance; and another, of conviction.

In the first note, mentioning the last point (viii) of Mário Maestri's general premises, I say that this theme is the specialty of the author of the review and, therefore, I will not interfere; I know that the observation about the skeleton of slavery raising us all up as a founding institution, a kind of ontology of Brazil, is quite popular and pertinent. I will only say that, as a historian of the 130th century, I believe that one should not lose sight of the many layers of history that the last XNUMX years have built on this legacy, even destroying it. By the way, not necessarily building much better things, but new problems, not tracked.

In the second note, I say how impossible it is to disagree with Mário Maestri when he mentions that I need conditions to continue producing. In short, conditions to continue being an intellectual worker, carrying out, as he seems to wish, as well as I wish and plan, to now cover the 1970s and (perhaps) the 1980s in the historiographical research of the themes here object of this frank comment.

*Wanderson Chaves is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of The Black Question: The Ford Foundation and the Cold War (Appris).


[I] So, of course, not these, from 1993: HARRIS, Marvin; CONSORTE, Josildeth Gomes; LANG, Joseph; BYRNE, Bryan. Who are the Whites?: Imposed Census Categories and the Racial Demography of Brazil. social forces, v. 72, Issue 2, December 1993.

[ii] HARRIS, Marvin. Racial Patterns in the Americas. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1967 [1964], p. 108. Translation by Maria Luíza Nogueira.

[iii] LIMA, Aruã Silva de. Communism against racism: self-determination and class biases in Brazil and the United States (1919-1939). 2015. Thesis (Doctorate in Social History) – Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences, USP, São Paulo.

[iv] About this argument: TAGUIEFF, Pierre-André. The Force of Prejudice: on Racism and its Doubles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001 [1987]. Translated and edited by Hassan Melehy.

[v] For the close relationship between the origins of Freyre's ideas and conservative intellectual trends in the US South, see: CANCELLI, Elizabeth. The power of ideas: Brazil and others. Porto Alegre: EdiPUCRS, 2012, pp. 134-160.

[vi] It is impossible to sum up without committing injustice what a whole genre of studies really is about. Just by way of illustration and introduction, I quote especially: DOMINGUES, Petrônio. Brazilian black movement: some historical notes. Time, v. 12, no. 27, 2007. PEREIRA, Amílcar Araújo. The black world: race relations and the constitution of the contemporary black movement in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2013. ALBERTO, Paulina L. Terms of inclusion: Brazilian black intellectuals in the XNUMXth century. Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 2017 [2011]. Translation by Elizabeth de Avelar Solano Martins. SILVA, Mário Augusto Medeiros da. Around the idea of ​​black associations in São Paulo (1930-2010). Sociology & Anthropology, v. 11, no. 2, May-Aug 2021.

[vii] This institutional transition is the main theme of the following book: KOREY, William. Taking on the World's Repressive Regimes: The Ford Foundation's International Human Rights Policies and Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

[viii] The anthropologist, professor at the Department of Anthropology at USP, Laura Moutinho, is the author, in this regard, of the forerunner master's thesis: Negotiating Discourses: Analysis of the Relationships between the Ford Foundation, the Black Movement and the Academy. Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ / IFCS, 1996.

[ix] CANCELLI, Elizabeth; MESQUISTA, Gustavo; CHAVES, Wanderson. Cold War and Brazil: towards the integration agenda of blacks in class society. São Paulo: Alameda, 2020. CANCELLI, Elizabeth; MESQUISTA, Gustavo; CHAVES, Wanderson. Foundations, US Foreign Policy and Anti-racism in Brazil: Pushing Racial Democracy. London: Routledge, 2023.

[X] Recent memoirs on this subject have highlighted that in Florestan Fernandes' real connection with the broader postulates of the sociology of modernization, in which the Chicago paradigm of race relations was housed, there was more critical distance, non-conformity and non-utopian faith than some people supposed. critics. Florestan would see in this agenda, above all, a strategic opportunity, to be torn away from the promises of the capitalist development of his time. For approaches of this type: SILVA, Mário Augusto Medeiros da, and BRASIL, JR., Antônio. Preface: Racism and limits to democracy in The integration of black people into class society. In: FERNANDES, Florestan. The integration of black people into class society. São Paulo: Countercurrent, 2021.

[xi] In this sense, there is the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, whose publication, already classic, is at the same time beautifully pertinent, in its premises, and quite mistaken in its approach, particularly when it denounces its level of material knowledge about Brazil. See: On the tricks of imperialist reason. Afro-Asian Studies, v. 24, no. 1, 2002.

[xii] Although it considers that the same assumptions were maintained until 1988, in The meaning of black protest, I also believe that this book has some nuances that deserve a separate analysis, due to its balance in relation to certain novelties of the 1980s, but not in relation to the more structural views of the history of Brazil by Florestan Fernandes, which remain almost unchanged.

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