The white nationalist ties of the next big civil rights case

Anti-civil rights strategist Edward Blum is far more connected to the “Dark Money ATM” of the right than has been previously reported

Edward Blum

Molly Butler / Media Matters

Another grave threat to civil rights law is on the doorstep of the Supreme Court, and it has a connection with some of this country’s most notorious white nationalists. 

DonorsTrust, the “Dark Money ATM” of the right, has long incubated a legal nonprofit run by an anti-civil rights strategist who is now bringing a new challenge to affirmative action before the Supreme Court. But it appears this internal litigation project is only one side of DonorTrust’s campaign to undermine the protections of civil rights law; recent tax filings reveal the group is also taking a more direct approach by funding racist extremist groups.      

The “colorblind” architect, the patron, and the extremists it funds

For decades, Edward Blum has been the well-connected architect of a right-wing campaign to undo seminal achievements of civil rights history. He has taken particular interest in dismantling equal protection and democracy jurisprudence, most famously by orchestrating the attacks on the Voting Rights Act that led to its evisceration in Shelby County v. Holder.

Blum has also challenged precedent upholding legislative districting by population in Evenwel v. Abbott, and has repeatedly targeted race-conscious admissions in higher education. He was behind the unsuccessful effort to repeal affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas, and he’s now widely expected to return to the Supreme Court with a new swipe at the country’s attempt to increase diversity in our schools, this time targeting Harvard University

To pay for these repeated trips to an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, Blum has long been a beneficiary of millions of dollars funneled through DonorsTrust, the donor-advised fund that shuffles money from anonymous sources to the entire spectrum of right-wing advocacy. And now, as reported by Alex Kotch for the Center for Media and Democracy, DonorsTrust has apparently branched into funding VDare and American Renaissance, a couple of the most virulent white nationalist hate groups out there. 

Both VDare and American Renaissance are considered extremist entities by the Southern Poverty Law Center, not just for the racist propaganda they publish, but also for their founders’ views. Peter Brimelow of VDare, in praise of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, recently argued, “There's ethnic specialization in crime. And Hispanics do specialize in rape, particularly of children. They're very prone to it, compared to other groups." American Renaissance focuses particularly on promoting anti-Black racism and eugenics, in addition to holding “conferences every other year where racist ‘intellectuals’ rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.”

The revelation puts Blum’s legal campaigns in a new light. Unlike other grantees of DonorsTrust who can claim distance from the fund’s decision-making process and its recent embrace of white supremacy, Blum cannot. Blum is so deeply embedded with the fund that DonorsTrust brags that his anti-civil rights crusade is its own, claiming “our DNA floats in the bloodstream” of his efforts. 

Blum’s influence hasn't gone under the radar. Time and again, he and his assault on over half a century of civil rights precedent have been the subject of media profiles that treat him as a conservative curiosity, albeit a successful one (“I’m just a regular guy”). This relative blandness — and his public insistence that he does not tolerate bigotry — fits perfectly with the right wing’s preferred (and ahistorical) narrative that it has no racial biases and seeks only to apply civil rights laws in a “colorblind” approach.

Even when confronted with inconvenient facts such as the record of anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ remarks made by the co-officer of his nonprofit (also a co-plaintiff in Evenwel), Blum does not back down from this ostensible egalitarian-to-a-fault persona. As he insisted to Mother Jones in 2016, “Groups like mine are not looking for Donald Trump-type supporters. We are looking for people who have honest, levelheaded opinions about equal representation. We reject people who are anti-immigrant. We reject people who are anti-Muslim. We reject people who have an antithetical view of American civil rights laws.” His professed shock at the resurgence of voter suppression in the wake of Shelby County (“I think about it a lot, I worry about it a lot. I agonise over this.”) is more of the same obliviousness that is hard to believe. Especially when Blum’s relationship with DonorsTrust is closely examined.

As is apparent from financial forms for the past 15 years, Blum and his nonprofit have long been the in-house legal effort of DonorsTrust, a fund that has supported the right-wing gamut from hate groups through xenophobes to anti-LGBTQ activists and climate deniers.

Edward Blum has been an internal pet project of DonorsTrust for years

Blum’s longstanding vehicle for his legal challenges has been the Project on Fair Representation (PFR), which first materialized as an internal program of DonorsTrust in its 2006 tax filings. It continued to be listed as a program service of the fund in tax filings through 2012, when it was spun off into Project Liberty Inc., a new nonprofit housed at DonorsTrust that had no employees but shared senior officers with the fund. 2012 was also the first year the fund appeared to pay fees directly to Wiley Rein, the well-known Republican-leaning law firm, whose lawyers were the go-to litigators for Blum’s biggest cases (they also represented Blum himself in another case that went to the Supreme Court in 1996, Bush v. Vera, which struck down districts designed to benefit Black and Latino voters). On its 2013 tax filing, Project Liberty took over paying Wiley Rein on behalf of PFR, which remained at Project Liberty until the next year, when Blum finally left DonorsTrust — at least on paper. 

Blum has always had a technical problem as he trolled for challenges to civil rights law. After his unsuccessful attempt to win public office in Texas in the early 1990s (which led him to blame majority-minority districts and pursue Bush v. Vera), he was unable to identify how precisely laws implemented to help heal us in the wake of Jim Crow hurt him personally. Of course, he never hid his grievance that civil rights laws continue to specifically protect persons of color, but strictly speaking, that isn’t enough to get you into court. 

In order to find the requisite standing to undermine decades of civil rights precedent, Blum had to find plaintiffs. In Shelby County, he apparently got lucky surfing the internet and cold-calling a local official. But when it came to his next target, affirmative action, he was not a rejected college applicant. So Blum set up websites to solicit teenagers convinced affirmative action blocked their admission to selective schools. Even though the experiment was a failure and he ended up using a longtime friend’s daughter as his plaintiff for Fisher (both the friend and the daughter would also become co-officers in his next nonprofit endeavor), he continued his fishing scheme in order to launch his case against Harvard. 

In the 2014 tax year, Project Liberty again paid Wiley Rein and Consovoy McCarthy (a new firm formed by a former Wiley Rein associate, William Consovoy, who would go on to become one of Trump’s lawyers and argue the president could shoot someone and not be prosecuted) on behalf of Blum, and PFR was spun off yet again, purportedly to continue its existence as a freestanding entity, but with a new nonprofit named Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) connected to it. Set up by Wiley Rein, SFFA stated in its documents of incorporation that its initial funding was from PFR, and it anticipated that PFR would “continue to be the primary funder of the organization.” Its original bylaws gave its address as 109 North Henry Street in Alexandria, Virginia, which was not only PFR’s old address, but also the longtime early home of DonorsTrust.   

Wiley Rein and Consovoy McCarthy followed Blum, collecting payments listed on PFR’s first full tax filing in 2015, and then Wiley Rein apparently left Blum’s orbit. For its part, Consovoy McCarthy began being paid by Blum through SFFA for the ongoing Harvard litigation (in addition to his voter suppression work, Consovoy is expected to be the lead attorney going forward). And it is this shell game trying to obscure the connection to DonorsTrust that the former solicitor general for the United States, Seth Waxman, on behalf of the legal team representing Harvard University, pointed out looks like a transparent attempt to manufacture legal standing for Blum. At the time PFR and SFFA unsuccessfully tried to create distance from DonorsTrust, Blum was not, in fact, a high schooler rejected by Harvard.              

After Blum lost an extensive bench trial on November 12, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit unanimously upheld the lower court’s conclusion that Harvard University’s race-conscious admissions process was constitutional and consistent with precedent. Blum immediately announced his intent to appeal to the Supreme Court, which is now even more conservative than when he closely lost Fisher, 4-3.

“Our DNA Floats In The Bloodstream”

To be clear: Blum’s relationship to DonorsTrust is closer than that of the hundreds of other right-wing causes that have benefited from the fund. Unlike the other reactionary organizations and causes DonorsTrust attempts to disavow responsibility for, Blum and his 501(c)3 have launched anti-civil rights litigation not just as grantees of the fund, but as an internal program. Edward Blum’s dangerous attacks on civil rights law — and the millions of Americans who benefit from them — have literally been incubated and launched from under the roof of DonorsTrust.

This organizational proximity, one the president of DonorsTrust characterized as one of shared DNA, already made it hard for Blum to distance himself from the group’s funding of organizations that clearly don’t share his professed distaste of bigots. And now Blum and his cases apparently share a familial relationship with a board that in 2019 approved grants to “groups that traffic in the type of dehumanizing racist pseudoscience that has inspired both terrorism and government-sanctioned horrors,” as explained by the Southern Poverty Law Center

When DonorsTrust wasn’t busy taking credit for incubating Blum’s next challenge to affirmative action before the Supreme Court, it was apparently hedging its bets on behalf of the white race by giving $1.5 million to VDare and American Renaissance’s financier — infamous organizations dedicated to white nationalism. The next round of media coverage of this anti-civil rights zealot and his affirmative action cases should keep this in mind. Just as many civil rights advocates assumed over the years, these right-wing activists apparently were never really opposed to so-called racial preferences. 

They just preferred a race of a different color.