Activism for profit: America’s ‘anti-affirmative action’ industry

How heavily funded non-profits working to unveil ‘problems’ with policies that increase diversity obstruct equal opportunities and racial equity in the United States.

In a photo from 2001, students against affirmative action, right, are confronted by another group for affirmative action during the Day of Action to Reverse the Ban on Affirmative Action rally at the University of California-Berkeley [File: AP photo/Jakub Mosur]

Like many Americans on election night in November 2020, I nervously awaited the results of the presidential contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But I had an additional reason to be anxious.

In my home state of California, voters were given the opportunity to reauthorise the use of affirmative action in state governmental institutions through a ballot measure known as Proposition 16.

Affirmative action is a set of policies aimed at increasing the representation of racial minorities and women in areas of education and employment from which they have been historically excluded.

Proposition 209: A law against affirmative action

Twenty-four years ago, in 1996, voters in California passed Proposition 209, a law that prohibited the consideration of race, ethnicity or sex in public education, employment, and contracting. Proposition 209 was one of the most significant legal challenges to affirmative action since the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Bakke v California which outlawed racial quotas but allowed for race to be considered as a factor in university admissions and employment. Proposition 209 went even further to eliminate race from consideration altogether.

This new law wreaked havoc on African Americans’ access to higher education, local and state government jobs, and business contracts within the state. In fact, according to Mike Davis, Commissioner and President Pro Tempore of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works data shows that while African American business owners received 15 percent of all city government contracts in 1996, today they receive only 0.23 percent – less than a quarter of 1 percent.

In our state’s public higher education system, African American student enrolment has dropped precipitously as well. Take, for instance, the California State University system, where African American student enrolment dropped from 8 percent in 1997 to 4 percent in 2018, despite an overall increase in the number of African American students graduating from high school.

After the ban on affirmative action took effect in 1996, targeted mentoring, tutoring and scholarship programmes for racial minority students experienced budget cuts or programme elimination. With the attainment of a university degree being one of the greatest predictors of economic and social mobility in the United States, Proposition 209 represented a setback to the African American “dream” of equal access and racial equality.

All of this brings me back to election night 2020 as I waited for the results for Proposition 16. With protests across the country following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor earlier in the year, affirmative action advocates and supporters across the state were hopeful that there would be enough public support to bring back the single most important legal tool in promoting racial equity.

I even joined the fight to restore affirmative action by personally organising and facilitating virtual voter education forums, explaining what the passage of Proposition 16 would do to increase educational and employment opportunities for African Americans.

Ward Connerly: Face of the anti-affirmative action movement

While some voters were familiar with Ward Connerly, the African American businessman who led the charge against affirmative action in the early 1990s, many were alarmed with the revelation of how much money he had made from his anti-affirmative action lobbyist work. I have written about race and conservative philanthropy, that is, monies from private family foundations which support conservative causes like anti-affirmative action. Yet most Americans know absolutely nothing about the profits made from what I call “the anti-affirmative action industry”.

Anti-affirmative action organising work was a lucrative business venture for Connerly and other activists like him. Shortly following his appointment to the Board of Regents for the University of California in 1993, Connerly was paid nearly $2m by the Bradley Foundation to lead the California Civil Rights Initiative Campaign, which helped put Proposition 209 on the California ballot. The Bradley Foundation is one of the wealthiest private family foundations in the US with a track record of supporting conservative causes such as the school choice movement which allows public school funds to follow students to the schools of their choice often resulting in fewer resources for local public schools.

In a photo from July 2003, Ward Connerly, chairman of American Civil Rights Coalition, speaks on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as an affirmative action supporter holds a sign protesting against his anti-affirmative action work [File: AP Photo/Paul Sancya]

Following the defeat of affirmative action in California, Connerly established the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), a non-profit organisation designed to educate elected officials, the press and the American public about the “problems” with affirmative action across the country.

Utilising more than $4m in donations from the Bradley ($1.9m), Olin ($775,000), Scaife ($925,000), Hickory ($250,000) and Randolph ($140,000) foundations in just one year of operation, the ACRI expanded the scope of its anti-affirmative action work and was directly responsible for overturning affirmative action in five states between 1997 and 2003.

For this work, Connerly received a salary of more than $300,000 from the ACRI, an additional $400,000 in consulting and speaking fees, and $15,000 in fringe benefits in 2002 alone, more than the salary of the governor of California. In just more than four years of operation from 1998 to 2002, Connerly earned more than $2.1m from the ACRI which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the total revenue earned by the non-profit organisation in those years.

Connerly’s high salary led some to question his motivations and even drew the attention of US legislators. Yet, Connerly continually scoffed at critics who raised concerns over his compensation. Still, other critics took exception to Connerly’s role as a conservative mouthpiece who was highly critical of the same affirmative action programmes from which he benefitted as a student and later as a businessman. In interviews and speeches, Connerly excoriated African Americans for their “lack of personal responsibility” and frequently dismissed the pervasiveness of racism as an explanation for African Americans’ lack of economic and social progress. Likewise, Connerly consistently stated he did not want to be labelled as “Black or African American” but also claimed an “insider knowledge” of African American culture that made him “a good fit” to lead the charge against affirmative action. To many, Connerly’s “good fit” claim sounded more like a sales pitch to cash in at the expense of other Black people.

Even after voters banned affirmative action in university admissions and government contracting in California, Connerly called for the elimination of ethnic studies programmes, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and ethnic graduation celebrations, and even worked to put a measure on the ballot to stop the collection of race data in local and state agencies. Although this measure was soundly defeated, it signalled just how far activists like Connerly were willing to go towards creating a “colour-blind” society and get paid well in the process. Connerly was the most recognisable face of the anti-affirmative action movement in the 1990s and early 2000s, but he certainly was not alone.

Edward Blum: Overturning affirmative action

Edward Blum served as the director of Legal Affairs for the ACRI under Connerly, before establishing his own non-profit legal defence foundation called the Project for Fair Representation (PFFR) in 2005. Blum is not a lawyer and instead fashions himself as a legal activist with a particular interest in eliminating affirmative action policies and programmes in the nation’s higher education institutions. His work involves matching plaintiffs to attorneys who are willing to work on “test cases” in order to set new legal precedents to overturn affirmative action laws across the country.

PFFR offers free legal representation to any individual or group willing to file lawsuits aimed at overturning affirmative action legislation. PFFR is able to offer these free legal services through wealthy contributions from members of Donors Trust, a non-profit donor-advised fund founded in 1999. As a donor-advised fund, Donors Trust has no legal requirement to disclose the identities of donors; however, some of the fund’s wealthiest donors include the Bradley Foundation, the Charles and David Koch Foundation, and the DeVos Family Foundation.

According to Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, people like Charles Koch and the DeVos Family, have used their vast fortunes to cloak their far-right political and social activism through their foundations, funding people and policies designed to “destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.” Policies promoting equal opportunity and racial equity – like affirmative action – are among some of the chief targets of this philanthropy.

Tax records from 2015 indicate that PFFR received $450,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust for “legal programs” while Donors Trust contributed $250,000 for “general operations”. Due to the privacy protections offered to donor funds, it is difficult to know exactly how much Blum and PFFR actually receive from Donors Trust.

In a photo from December 2015, Edward Blum, right, accompanies a student who challenged the use of race in college admissions while she speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC [File: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite]

Unlike Connerly, who was paid handsomely to be the public face of the anti-affirmative action movement, Blum represents a different breed of conservative legal entrepreneur who prefers to stay out of the limelight and draw a much smaller annual salary of $50,000. Since 1995, however, Blum has also received an annual salary estimated to be in the region of $100,000 from his work with the American Enterprise Institute, where he serves as a research fellow focused on legal issues related to race. Despite his lower public profile, Blum has been able to successfully re-litigate the merits of affirmative action in four separate cases argued before the US Supreme Court. One of these cases, Shelby County v. Holder (2013) paved the way for states like Texas to expand new voter ID requirements, making it more difficult for African Americans to vote.

While Blum runs PFFR as a one-man operation, in 2014, he also established Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a membership-driven group, to challenge university admissions policies. Blum uses this organisation to recruit students who have been denied admission to elite universities such as Harvard University and files lawsuits on their behalf. The membership structure of SFFA gives the impression that the organisation is grassroots in nature, however, the majority of SFFA’s revenue comes from large private foundations like the Searle Freedom Trust and Donors Trust.

In 2017, SFFA attempted to overturn Harvard University’s admissions policy, arguing that the university discriminated against Asian Americans by accepting African American and Latinos who were less academically qualified. However, the judge in the case ruled that Harvard did not discriminate against Asian Americans because it did not create special racial quotas. Although SFFA lost this case, Blum continues to look for ways to overturn affirmative action. As luck would have it, Blum got another opportunity when affirmative action was once again on the ballot in California in 2020.

Proposition 16: An uphill battle

Based on fundraising alone, the Yes on 16 Campaign in support of Proposition 16 should have won by a landslide. But despite lobbyist groups funnelling in more than $25m, and despite voters in six major California cities approving measures to defund the police, Proposition 16 was defeated by 15 percent. The No on 16 Campaign, by comparison, raised nearly $2m including donations from Students for Fair Admissions.

The 2020 summer protests were clearly not enough to change public sentiment in support of affirmative action.

A photo from October 2020 shows a billboard ad for the 2020 California Proposition 16 – End Diversity Ban, in Inglewood, California [AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes]

I maintain that the reason for the bill’s failure traces back to 1996 with the heavy infusion of private money into politics, which enabled foundations to buy influence and shape attitudes in powerful ways.

Activists like Connerly worked hard to sway public sentiment towards the belief that Black culture was to be blamed for Black poverty, creating an uphill battle for the Yes on 16 Campaign even with $25m in donations.

Likewise, those who assert that affirmative action promotes “reverse racism” never seem concerned about how many slots are given to white applicants. They never question the economic and social conditions that make affirmative action necessary for African Americans in the first place.

Instead, these activists leverage the financial resources of conservative foundations to change the way people talk and think about affirmative action while enriching their pockets in the process.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.