Skyline of Richmond, Virginia

Dissolving a Stain Applied by Henry Ford

12.09.12

by WALTER BRASCH

Mark Fields is the new chief operating officer of the Ford Motor Co., second only to the CEO of the 164,000 person multinational corporation.

Normally, this would not be of much concern except to avid readers of the Wall Street Journal. There were several COOs and presidents before Fields. There will be several after him.

But this time it’s different. Mark Fields is a Jew.

Henry Ford, who founded the company in 1903 that bears his family name, was an anti-Semite. When asked in 1920 what the problem with major league baseball was, Ford summed it up in three words—“too much Jew.” At the time, fewer than two dozen Jews had ever played professional baseball during the previous four decades. During the 1920s, Ford’s newspaper, the weekly Dearborn Independent, distributed to every Ford dealership, was loaded with anti-Semitic articles. Several of those articles were compiled into a four-volume set, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.

By the 1930s, Ford was both praised and honored by the Nazis, including Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS whose mission included the extermination of Jews. Adolph Hitler personally awarded Ford the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, that country’s highest award to a foreigner; Hitler personally kept a picture of the industrialist on his desk.

Ford, of course, wasn’t the only anti-Semite or racist in America. America’s colleges established admissions quotas or excluded minorities entirely. Medical schools admitted only a few Jews, and then only if they promised not to enter clinical practice but become psychiatrists. Apparently, they had to cede psychiatry to Jews because of the pioneering work by Freud, Adler, and other Jews. Jewish scientists—many like Einstein—were trained in European universities and then came to the United States during the wave of immigration between the world wars; they were “carefully watched” and often demeaned. Country clubs denied Jews access, villages denied them residence. And throughout the country, the resurgence of the Klan led to lynchings of Blacks and firebombing of synagogues.

Because of a higher proportion of Jews historically in the sciences, creative arts, social work, mass media, and financial empires than among the general population, a large number of Americans have isolated those professions and blamed Jews for whatever the current problem happens to be. A survey by the Anti-Defamation League in 2007 revealed that 15 percent of Americans held anti-Semitic views. More disguise their views by claiming they don’t oppose Jews, just urban liberals—a higher proportion of Jews live in urban areas than in rural areas, and Jews tend to be more liberal, and more active in social justice, than the general population.

During the late 1940s, Henry Ford II, the founder’s grandson, systematically decreased the company’s virulent anti-union attitudes and increased the company’s affirmative action program, promoting Jews, Afro-Americans, Hispanics, and women into management positions. Mervyn Manning, a Jew, became the first minority ever promoted to a Ford vice-presidency. He once recalled that at the time he was hired in the mid-1950s, the only Black in corporate headquarters was the shoeshine boy. Under Henry Ford II, the company approved and encouraged minorities to own Ford dealerships. But it was never enough.

My family, like hundreds of thousands of other Jewish families, never owned a Ford, nor had any plans to own a Ford, no matter the price, deals, or quality of product. There were other car lines produced by union workers whose bosses may have had attitudes against Jews and other minorities—GM and Chrysler’s affirmative action programs also lagged—but they weren’t as blatant in their Anti-Semitic hate as was the paternalistic creator of the Ford brand who had revolutionized the manufacturing process, paid his workers slightly better than industry averages, and established marketing as a central part to any corporation’s business plan.

Mark Fields was born in Brooklyn, and earned an economics degree from Rutgers and an MBA from Harvard. He began his career at Ford in 1989, and was fast-tracked into several executive positions. Shortly after his promotion to executive vice-president, Fields told an organization of Jewish business executives he “never encountered one iota of discrimination as a Jew during my career at Ford.” He will probably become the CEO within the next two years when the current CEO, Alan Mulally, retires.

It’s possible my family, and thousands of other families, may some day buy a Ford. The stain the company’s founder painted onto his product has faded. Perhaps when Mark Fields becomes CEO—and it’s no longer news that a minority has been promoted into executive management—it might be time to reconsider our decisions.

[Walter Brasch’s latest book is the critically acclaimed best-seller Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, available at amazon.com, www.greeleyandstone.com, and brick-and-mortar bookstores.]

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