The old newspaper clipping shows two families, one descended from a white man and a black woman and the other descended from two white people, with the text, “Interesting researches by the Carnegie Institute disprove the popular notion that a ‘pass-for-white’ person married to a pure white may have a negro child.” The Carnegie and all the other major foundations that began modern philanthropy not only thought heredity important, they were, writes William Schambra in  The New Atlantis , eugenicists when eugenicism was cool.

America’s first general-purpose philanthropic foundations — Russell Sage (founded 1907), Carnegie (1911), and Rockefeller (1913) — backed eugenics precisely because they considered themselves   to be progressive. After all, eugenics had begun to point the way to a bold, hopeful human future through the application of the rapidly advancing natural sciences and the newly forming social sciences to human problems.

By investing in the progress and application of these fields, foundations boasted that they could delve down to the very roots of social problems, rather than merely treating their symptoms. Just as tracking physiological diseases back to parasites and microbes had begun to eliminate the sources of many medical ailments, so tracking social pathology — crime, pauperism, dipsomania, and “feeblemindedness,” a catch-all term for intellectual disabilities — back to defective genes would allow us to attack it at its source. As John D. Rockefeller put it, “the best philanthropy is constantly in search of the finalities — a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”


The story does not improve. “According to the perspective of philanthropic eugenics,” explains Schambra, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philan­thropy and Civic Renewal,
the old practice of charity — that is, simply alleviating human suffering — was not only inefficient and unenlightened; it was downright harmful and immoral. It tended to interfere with the salutary operations of the biological laws of nature, which would weed out the unfit, if only charity, reflecting the antiquated notion of the God-given dignity of each individual, wouldn’t make such a fuss about attending to the “least of these.”

For example, Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, still a kind of secular saint and someone funded by the Rockefeller Foundation,
included a chapter called “ The Cruelty of Charity ” in her 1922 book  The Pivot of Civilization , arguing that America’s charitable institutions are the “surest signs that our civilization has bred, is breeding and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.” Organizations that treat symptoms permit and even encourage social ills instead of curing them.

The problem, he  argues, is that the foundations wanted to reform rather than help, to change rather than heal. The essay not only explains the history of foundational eugenics but offers a shrewd analysis of the way the major foundations  work today and why so many are still, if not directly eugenicist, just as committed to social engineering and the reform of those they consider (though they don’t use this term anymore) defective. For one thing,
It is not difficult to understand how our philanthropic experts can, over time, lose sight of the fact that individuals are not just inadequately self-conscious bundles of pathologies but rather whole and worthy persons, possessed of an innate human dignity that demands respect no matter what problems they may suffer. Once philanthropists have steeled themselves sufficiently to discount the dignity of the suffering person before them in order to pursue a good that the sufferer cannot be trusted to appreciate, they may conclude that the most merciful way to alleviate suffering is to prevent anyone from becoming a sufferer in the first place — by cutting off suffering at its supposed root.

Philanthropy’s Original Sin is a very illuminating essay, and it illuminates the major foundations’ present as much as it reveals their (sordid, wicked) past.

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