“Nuance” as Carceral Worldmaking: A Response to Darren Walker

by Dylan Rodríguez

The recent and unfortunate statement by Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, “In Defense of Nuance,” defends and affirms the condition of domestic warfare popularly known (though misnamed) as “mass incarceration.”  (The “mass” of “mass incarceration” is not an undifferentiated cross-section of the US demography, but is in fact a targeted, profiled, carcerally segregated population that reflects the nation’s racial chattel and racial-colonial foundations and their present tense continuities.)  We should be clear that Walker’s missive ignores, dismisses, or otherwise trivializes and caricatures a thriving and growing body of abolitionist scholarship and collective praxis that is rigorously challenging the cultural and political premises of policing, criminalization, and incarceration as normalized protocols of gendered racist state violence in the United States and elsewhere. 

Hundreds if not thousands of academic colleagues, current/former Ford Foundation Fellows (of which i am one), and fellow abolitionist practitioners, many of them hailed by Prof. Angela Y. Davis’s recent call to protest, are vigorously responding to Walker’s endorsement of jail expansion in New York as well as the stunningly arrogant ideological grandstand that enmeshes its terms of articulation.  This critical response illuminates the Ford Foundation’s historical position as the philanthropic extension of hegemonic racial, corporate, and military relations of power while compelling a vital reconsideration of what such philanthropic institutions actually mean when they institutionalize the terms of “racial equality,” “social justice,” and “hope.”

It is worth emphasizing that Walker’s insistence on “patience,” “nuance,” “inclusivity,” and “rationality” draws on a rhetorical tradition made famous by his presidential predecessor McGeorge Bundy (1966-1979), who mobilized the resources of the Ford Foundation against the Black liberation movement and its socially transformative possibilities in favor of liberal reformism, (Black) “leadership development” initiatives, cultural assimilation campaigns, piecemeal academic initiatives, and entrepreneurialism.[i]  A half-century later, Darren Walker is drawing on the vast corporate, political, and cultural capital of the Ford Foundation to re-narrate—that is, discredit and militantly oppose—the alleged “extremism” of teachers, students, researchers, organizers, artists, writers, thinkers, and activists collectively struggling to build (abolitionist) capacities for freedom and liberation at a vital historical moment, a critical praxis that vitally builds on what the late Cedric Robinson named the Black Radical Tradition. 

I offer this short piece as a partial response to Darren Walker’s “In Defense of Nuance,” with the hope that it will provide some context for a sustained discussion of how institutions like the Ford Foundation might begin to more seriously engage in the processes of reparation and decolonization that could fractionally address the damage caused by their peculiar, though no less overwhelming efforts at carceral worldmaking, from Rikers to Rio de Janeiro.

As longtime Black Scholar editor Robert Allen recounts in his classic study Black Awakening in Capitalist America, the decade following the official abolition of US apartheid was characterized by a comprehensive institutional struggle to reconfigure and sustain white supremacy within an anti-Black social formation.  This struggle for white supremacist reconfiguration was structured in the continuous political and social repression of Black life and its capacity to manifest insurgent modalities of human being.  Put another way, the struggle to remake White Being (including its diverse, multiculturalist phenotypic renditions) in the throes of the post-apartheid socio-juridical crisis affirmed rather than undermined the totality of anti-Blackness[ii] as a regime of violence that forms the sociocultural and ideological infrastructures of hemispheric American modernity.  (Guided by Sylvia Wynter’s critique of European and euroamerican humanism, i understand White Being as the militarized, normative paradigm of human being that inhabitants of the ongoing half-millennium Civilizational project have involuntarily inherited as a violent universal.)[iii]

Following Allen, these institutional mobilizations gained momentum in the late-1960s and quickly crystallized in “a program of domestic neo-colonialism” (emphasis in the original) that was led in part by an ensemble of “America’s corporate elite,” including the Ford Foundation, Urban Coalition, National Alliance of Businessmen, Carnegie Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation, among others.[iv]  While an increasingly militarized and counter-insurgent racist state openly pivoted toward its criminalization, policing, and carceral infrastructures to broaden the cultural and juridical groundwork of gendered racist and broadly anti-Black social-political repression (domestic war), a less visible, though equally calculated strategy of domestic white humanitarianism was simultaneouslyconceiving the ideological and institutional blueprint for an embryonic US nonprofit industrial complex.[v] 

This generally coordinated confluence of strategic planning across corporate, state, and civil society institutions was not only “designed to counter the potentially revolutionary thrust of the recent [B]lack rebellions in major cities across the country,”[vi] but was also a defense of the integrity of White Being itself, particularly at a historical conjuncture in which its hemispheric ascendancy was destabilized by the successful overthrow of the Jim Crow apartheid social form.  Alongside the socially transformative possibilities of creative Black political and cultural productions that composed what Manning Marable, by way of Nikki Giovanni,[vii] references as the United States’ “Second Reconstruction” (1945-2006),[viii] there has been an equally protracted, overlapping series of struggles to counteract and neutralize (or liquidate) liberation-oriented, feminist, queer, anti-colonial/decolonial, Black radical, and anti-racist mobilizations of thought, organization, creative community, and collective (self-defensive) rebellion throughout the still ongoing “post-civil rights” moment.

The skirmishes of what might be called the last half century of White Reconstruction have taken place under rapidly changing juridical and cultural conditions, with the racist state’s uneven accommodation of the juridical post-apartheid civil rights imperative consistently contested and undermined by a vaster (state and extra-state) institutional ensemble that has overwhelmingly sought to reproduce the political, discursive, economic, and ideological logics of the chattel plantation and colonialist frontier as both analogical and active modes of social organization.  Allen’s text advances a clearly documented, lucid historical narrative of how the organic intellectuals and professional planners of white civil society and the US racist state scrambled through the 1970s to convene their collective (political and economic) capital, shared interests, and infrastructural capacities to countervail and coopt the revolutionary social trajectories incited by the dense liberationist movements—with a paradigmatic focus on Black radicalism—that posed imminent and direct threats to the material sustainability and political mystification of global US modernity and its foundational ordering in the ascendancy of White Being. 

A crucial “soft” directive was erected through these protocols of organic white supremacist consensus-building, one that would become central to the institutional and political methods of White Reconstruction:  liberal and progressive blocs within the racial state and white civil society would need to clearly delineate the horizons of the post-apartheid political possibility in a manner that reproduced White Being’s ascendancy while desegregating its institutional, phenotypic, and ideological expressions. 

How, in other words, could the liberal-progressive tendencies of the racist state and white civil society cultivate a desegregated American Dream that was ideologically inclusive of the Black and nonwhite masses while simultaneously rearticulating, diversifying, and thus strengthening the logics of white supremacy on which that dream is based?  Principal to such a directive is the reproduction of racial capitalism[ix] and its constitutive racial-colonial violence, an agenda significantly accomplished through programs of class and cultural assimilation that have taken the form of diversity and affirmative action programs, foundation and nonprofit funded campaigns for liberal-progressive social change, and various privately and publicly funded academic research grants, scholarships, and high-profile fellowships. 

As Noliwe Rooks and others have shown, the Ford Foundation (under Bundy’s leadership) played a central role in funding and shaping the institutionalization of African American Studies in a manner that neutralized Black and “Third World” student protest while containing the epistemological and pedagogical implications of Black radicalism’s scholarly interventions.[x]  Liberal shifts in K-12 and college curricula, periodic piecemeal reforms of racist state policing, criminological, and carceral practices, and hundreds of successful local, statewide, and national electoral campaigns for public office have further contributed to a disciplining of political imaginaries that facilitates rather than resisting and opposing the institutional and cultural logics of White Reconstruction.  In this sense, the cultural-ideological projects of post-racialism that followed Barack Obama’s ascent were more compatible and symbiotic with the emergence of white supremacist reaction than is commonly presumed.  Darren Walker’s “In Defense of Nuance” is further evidence of this repressive symbiosis.

Over the course of this still-unfolding half-century, the global US racist state metastasizes with dooming brilliance, inventing, dismantling, and reproducing protocols of immiseration and terror.  Never quite reducible to institutionalizations of white racial monopoly and American apartheid, the historical systems and infrastructures of gendered racial-colonial violence flex and “reform” with maddening pace over the course of this long, ongoing half-century.  Mounting evidence accrues—anecdotal and empirical, believable non/fictions of racist conspiracy buzzing beneath the coldly official accounts of Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer casualties—indicating that desegregation, equal opportunity, diversity, tolerance, multiculturalism, colorblindness, inclusion in the Civilizational experiment are the master’s experiments, engineered to reproduce the society structured in racial-colonial dominance.  The insurgent peoples—whose collective personhood may be a primary method of rebellion—generally realize their liberation is an act of war, or at least a collective terrorist threat against the rising tide of white invitation into the experiment, as they simultaneously recognize that there may be no “outside” of the promiscuous institutional reaches of the recent and current White Reconstruction.

This is why the emergence of abolitionist praxis in the early-21st century must be honored, defended, enriched, and accelerated.  It must not be sacrificed to a fraudulent notion of “nuance” that sacrifices lives and reproduces carceral death.


Dylan Rodríguez

Professor, University of California at Riverside

Chair of the Academic Senate at UC Riverside

President-Elect of the American Studies Association

[The image above superimposes Darren Walker and McGeorge Bundy’s faces inside the Ford Foundation building.]

[i] See Karen Ferguson’s indispensable study Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2013).

[ii] On anti-Blackness, João Costa Vargas and Moon-Kie Jung offer the following heuristic conception:  “Heuristically… we understand antiblackness as structured, ubiquitous, and perduring disadvantages for Black people and structured advantages for nonblacks. Such articulated disadvantages and advantages take place in the realms of ontology (how individuals constitute and define themselves as such), sociability (lived social experience), and access to resources. Antiblackness helps us grasp the types of symbolic and actual forms of violence one is subjected to. The likelihood of social and physical death is a direct function of antiblackness.”  See João Costa Vargas and Moon-Kie Jung, “Introduction,” Antiblackness(João Costa Vargas and Moon-Kie Jung, eds) (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming).  Calvin Warren’s philosophical conceptualization provides a complementary framing: “antiblackness: an accretion of practices, knowledge systems, and institutions designed to impose nothing onto blackness and the unending domination/eradication of black presence as nothing incarnated. Put differently, antiblackness is anti-nothing. What is hated about blacks is this nothing, the ontological terror, they must embody for the metaphysical world.”  See Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), p. 9.

[iii] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation-an Argument,” CR: the New Centennial Review, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2003): 257-337. p. 319.

[iv] Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (1970) (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990), p. 17.

[v] Dylan Rodríguez, “The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, eds.) (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007), p. 21-40.

[vi] Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America, p. 17.

[vii] Nikki Giovanni, Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement (New York: William Morrow, 1970), p. 83.

[viii] Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006. (1984) 3rd ed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

[ix] See Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[x] Noliwe Rooks, White Money, Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).

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