The Republican activists leading a decades-long assault on affirmative action, which is poised to succeed in the Supreme Court, claim they want to eliminate racism and create a colorblind society.
Their propaganda is so persuasive that 73% of Americans, including most people of color, believe race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions.
But those same activists who've stoked the flames of antagonism toward affirmative action have close ties to the architects of this country's metastasizing white nationalist movement. These links reveal the activists' ultimate agenda, which has nothing to do with ending racism.
Among them is Ward Connerly, the former University of California regent. In 1996, he spearheaded the first state ban on considering race or gender in public education, hiring and contracting, inspiring other states to pass similar restrictions.
Last month, Connerly, who has formerly protested being labeled a Black man, spoke outside the Supreme Court at a rally for his "dear friend" Edward Blum, who's leading the high-profile lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina that aim to overturn decades of legal precedent. "Dr. King had a dream," Connerly said. "I have a nightmare. … Diversity and equity and inclusion will be the death of the country that we love."
Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists share this dread. In 2012, Connerly spoke at an event for the Social Contract Press, a white nationalist publishing house. "The endgame for all of us is vanquishing this whole notion of diversity," Connerly said at the event, which also featured prominent white nationalist Peter Brimelow, whose racist lies about the "ethnic specialization in crime" include the following: "Hispanics do specialize in rape, particularly of children."
In his speech, Connerly lamented Latinos' political empowerment. "The electorate has changed profoundly," he said, "and I fear that that is permanent."
Connerly supported the 2021 gubernatorial recall election campaign of right-wing radio host Larry Elder, a longtime mentor of former President Trump's anti-immigrant advisor, Stephen Miller. In an op-ed in the Orange County Register, Connerly described the Los Angeles Times' coverage of Elder as "unhinged" and "vile," focusing on a column I wrote about Elder's connections to Jared Taylor, a well-known white supremacist.
Ignoring the Taylor detail, Connerly described me as "part of the ever-growing group of race-baiters enabling and fomenting Latino and Black victimhood."
Blum, Connerly's successor in the legal assault against affirmative action, has similar affinities. He was behind the lawsuit a decade ago that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and has fought affirmative action in public and private sectors, including at Coca-Cola and the New York State health department.
Blum's nonprofit, Students for Fair Admissions, is the plaintiff in both affirmative action lawsuits before the Supreme Court. The organization pretends to value diversity and Asian American students, claiming that admissions policies harm Asian Americans. But the litigation is funded largely by DonorsTrust, which also provides millions to white nationalist groups, including Brimelow's and Taylor's. Blum's legal challenges were once an internal program of DonorsTrust.
"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," wrote Sergio Muñoz, an expert in legal policy, in 2020. "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."
A Supreme Court decision in favor of Blum's group will end up hurting diversity not just in college admissions but on construction sites, in hospitals and more. "As soon as they get it on the books for higher education," Muñoz told me, "they're going to be able to use that case as precedent and take it across American society."
The California ban on affirmative action set back an entire generation of Black and Latino youth, fueling a decline in their enrollment and reducing their earnings. University faculties in California still don't come close to reflecting the state's population, and student diversity continues to fall short.
Attempts to restore affirmative action in California have repeatedly failed, even in 2020 when voters rejected Proposition 16. The outcome speaks to the success of the psychological warfare waged by conservative activists, particularly Connerly. As a Black man, he has fueled the false impression that fighting affirmative action would help people of color.
Affirmative action isn't without problems, such as reliance on self-reporting. As conservative Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. observed during oral arguments, a student with one great-grandparent from an underrepresented group can claim to belong to it. Too often, beneficiaries are among the most privileged of their group.
Still, forbidding the consideration of race in the name of the 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection under the laws, would be far worse.
As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted, a hypothetical Black applicant writing about his family's historical lack of access to the university due to slavery could not have his background valued in admissions, while a hypothetical white applicant writing about his family's long history of attending the university could. That would end up violating the equal protection clause that the plaintiffs claim to respect.
The 14th Amendment's framers repeatedly rejected language barring race-conscious law and policy, and through the Reconstruction era they approved race-conscious assistance to previously enslaved people.
Before it became so radicalized, the Supreme Court rejected Blum's arguments twice. Lower courts have consistently recognized that universities have a legitimate interest in diversifying because it benefits all students and better prepares them for a multiracial world. And they've recognized that other mechanisms for achieving it aren't nearly as effective.
But diversity has never been the goal of affirmative action's opponents. The long history of ties to racist groups shows what the movement's goals really are: to preserve white power and to cynically enlist us all in that project.