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Earlier this month Ford Foundation president Darren Walker released his annual letter on the state of philanthropy. Entitled On Power, Privilege, and Ignorance, the letter picks up the theme of inequality that Walker set out in a key essay last year. 

But Walker quickly pivots his attention to a new theme: Ignorance. Citing writer and critic James Baldwin, Walker notes that “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” To be sure, Walker isn’t thinking here of “ignorance” as a scare-word substitute for “bigotry” (though, he says, there’s “no doubt the two can be related”). Rather, “ignorance” is meant to refer to that systematic and subtle sort of influence exercised by some over others. On this understanding “each of us hold some form of power or privilege” which remains largely “unacknowledged,” and thus as pernicious as it is persistent. 

Walker goes on to note how as a black, gay man, it would be easy for him to put on the mantle of grievance politics and criticize with abandon. “But during the past year,” he notes, “I have had to confront my own ignorance and [my own] power, and come to terms with the ways I was inadvertently fueling injustice.” He discusses how friends and colleagues wrote to him after the Ford Foundation’s recent announcement of a new strategic giving plan and complained to him that he had left out any mention of the disabled. RespectAbility president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi called him a hypocrite for talking up the issue of inequality while failing to even mention the more than one billion disabled people around the world. “I deserved it,” said Walker, who further explained that: 

“Indeed, those who courageously—and correctly—raised this complicated set of issues pointed out that the Ford Foundation does not have a person with visible disabilities on our leadership team; takes no affirmative effort to hire people with disabilities; does not consider them in our strategy; and does not even provide those with physical disabilities with adequate access to our website, events, social media, or building.”

 “How could we possibly miss this?” Walker wondered aloud.

Privilege and ignorance amplify one another. This realization spurns another about the Ford Foundation’s institutional privilege and ignorance, and the promise from Walker that the organization will do a better job in the future at incorporating the perspective of persons with disabilities and their advocates. “Nothing about us, without us,” as the disabled community often insists. 

This sort of self-searching might seem maudlin to the (reactionary) conservative critical of a runaway PC culture, but I think it’s wrong to dismiss the genuine insights Walker and the Ford Foundation gained by having to consider a group they, like everyone else, have forgotten.

To the extent that philanthropies aspire to be stewards and boosters of our shared civil society, they must strive to include all members of society. And to the extent that we want to be able to claim to have a civil society at all, it must be one both universal and expansive. Civil society is not that thing out there for and by other people, but involves us—all of us—weighing in together on any given question of common concern. “Nothing about us, without us,” indeed. As Walker discovered, we often overlook certain among us and thereby deny them their participation in a shared cultural experience. 

Which in turn makes Walker’s conclusion so perplexing. He writes in summary that we all must be more vigilant in seeking to “defeat the enemies of justice.” Who are these enemies? They have not been named, let alone argued against. And if Walker’s preceding account is any guide, a person or organization need not be an “enemy of justice” in order to perpetrate injustice. This sort of line may be dismissed as rhetorical flourish—fair enough. But I think it is dangerous to paint pictures of boogeymen lurking in the dark shadows. Such scaremongering weakens civil society, making us more self-righteous than self-critical. It’s one thing to own up to your own ignorance—it’s another to insist there are those out there willfully manufacturing systematic ignorance with malicious intent. 

Maybe there are, but the point here is that those who want to take that position need to be more specific, because this sort of “enemies of justice” rhetoric can be bandied about a bit too blithely, with the effect that certain politically unfashionable groups get boxed out of the conversation. As Walker’s own example shows, most participants in the public square are operating in good faith, even if they’re more or less blinded by their implicit ignorance. Let’s perhaps stop looking so zealously for “enemies,” then, and instead start making new and different types of friends. That seems a surer path to a more affirming and vibrant civil society. 

Photo credit: Joi via Visual hunt / CC BY

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