Jurisprudence

The Absurd, Enduring Myth of the “One-Man” Campaign to Abolish Affirmative Action

Harvard building and the ground covered in snow with trees leafless.
A man takes pictures of the snow on campus at Harvard University during a snowstorm on January 29, 2022 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear the affirmative action cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina on Halloween, it’s time to unmask Edward Blum, the conservative activist behind the lawsuits attacking the universities’ diversity-building admissions policies. The media has helped Blum propagate an image as a lone underdog taking on much more powerful interests, with the Washington Post on Monday producing a typical headline: “How one man brought affirmative action to the Supreme Court. Again and again.” In reality, though, Blum is not some humble David going it alone in his battle against Goliath, but the well-off beneficiary of a powerful infrastructure of right-wing funders, think tanks, and lawyers that used its might to help end Roe v. Wade and will also go after voting and LGBTQ+ rights protections this Supreme Court term, on top of their attack on affirmative action.

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The false narrative of the solo actor is perniciously common in the conservative playbook, spread by media across the political spectrum. Blum’s little-ol’-me facade was set a decade ago, when he went to the Supreme Court with his first and failed anti-affirmative action case, 2012’s Fisher v. University of Texas. The Texas Tribune called him “a one-man show.” He was “just a regular guy” in The Washington Post; “meek” in Salon; and “just me and a website” in the Los Angeles Times, despite his longtime fellow position at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. The mainstream descriptions of Blum have been similarly misleading this time around. Reporting on the current case, MSNBC referred to his “one-man mission to end affirmative action.” Last week, Blum was given space in the The New York Times to describe his operation as “low-cost…no bricks, no mortar, no employees.” This week’s aforementioned piece in the Post followed suit, describing Blum as having “an extraordinary track record for… a stockbroker turned conservative activist and policy wonk, who is neither a lawyer nor the head of a large organization.”

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Such descriptions obfuscate the big money backing his work and the regressive, anti-democratic goals of those backers and his lawsuits. The Democratic Policy and Communications Committee has bluntly called Blum’s organizations “fronts for corporate mega-donors seeking to change the law through the courts.” Following the money, as education analyst James S. Murphy does, reveals that from 2015-2020, Blum’s two main non-profits, Project on Fair Representation and Students for Fair Admissions, received $11.2 million in contributions, with Blum receiving more than $900,000 in pay. Significant donations have come from prominent conservative funders Searle Freedom Trust, the Scaife Foundation and Bradley Foundation, alongside at least $3 million from Donors Trust, which has been called the “dark money ATM of the right,” with the Koch and DeVos families among its major contributors. On top of this are the hundreds of millions of dollars flooding the judicial nominations process and shaping a radically conservative Supreme Court favorable to causes like Blum’s.

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His organizations’ 2015–19 tax returns also show they paid $8.3 million in legal fees, including $5.3 million to his favored firm Consovoy McCarthy, further rendering the notion that he toils on his own absurd. Consovoy McCarthy is a high-end boutique firm featuring many former clerks of Justice Clarence Thomas and specializing in far-right causes, including defending Donald Trump in the emoluments cases accusing him of illegally profiting from his presidency.

Blum’s legal offensives beyond affirmative action are less well-known but add up to a full-scale war on racial equity. Most disastrous for communities of color was 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, which dismantled a key component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and has led to a wave of attempted voter suppression legislation across the nation. While Blum claims to be a champion of Asian Americans in asserting, wrongly, that affirmative action harms them, one of his organizations supported the failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census that was a direct strike at the political representation of immigrant communities and threatened legal action against Coca-Cola over requirements that its law firms diversify their teams (the policy was dropped); another went to court against NASDAQ rules aimed to increase corporate board representation of women and people of color, including Asian Americans (the case is pending).

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Blum’s amicus-brief allies in the anti-affirmative action cases are also working against LGBTQ+ rights—including trans rights—Muslims, unions, climate science, environmental regulation, Critical Race Theory, and, of course, reproductive rights. In fact, 18 of the 20 states that submitted amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in support of Blum’s anti-affirmative case are listed by the Guttmacher Institute as being among the most “restrictive” states in terms of abortion access in the country, with several having enacted outright bans since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

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It is a conservative trope that individuals—and not societies or systems—are responsible for their own successes and failures and thus why would we need policy solutions like affirmative action or any consideration of racial inequities? So it’s no surprise that the origin story of Edward Blum—and of fellow far-right-lane travelers like Chris Rufo—has been burnished into one of a single hard-working guy at his desk. Rufo has been lionized for single-handedly creating his self-proclaimed “one-man war” on CRT and LGBTQ+ issues in education. He even posted an illustration of himself as Hercules battling the Hydra of “the diversity-industrial complex.” Similar to Blum’s, Rufo’s crusade has been enabled by a web of think tanks, foundations, and a massive fundraising apparatus backed by billionaire donors—not to mention the relentless firepower of Fox News.

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This characterization is not limited to men. A new PEN America report depicts how the current explosion of book bans was galvanized by national organizations like Moms for Liberty (now with 200 local chapters), purportedly “grassroots” groups that other analysts have shown are actually well-connected and well-funded. Still, Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich was quoted this week saying, “We are so much like David” against Goliath.

Don’t believe the mythology: Blum, Rufo and their allied “just moms” groups are enabled by a vast ecosystem of legally anonymous money and support. And Blum’s past work to disenfranchise voters may blunt any attempted electoral response to the relentless attacks on our rights. How outrageous that he claims to stand for fairness while systematically dismantling pivotal laws and policies that only begin to undo the exclusion of so many from our dream of a true, multiracial democracy.

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