Affirmative Action Is in the Supreme Court’s Crosshairs

Affirmative Action Is in the Supreme Court’s Crosshairs

Affirmative Action Is in the Supreme Court’s Crosshairs

And the man who got it there is not, as he likes to claim, an iconoclastic one-person organization.


By the close of June, the Supreme Court will almost certainly end affirmative action in college admissions. For Edward Blum, who spearheaded the lawsuits against the University of North Carolina and Harvard—claiming the schools’ race-conscious policies admit unqualified Black and Hispanic students, while “intentionally discriminating” against deserving Asian American applicants—the verdict would fulfill a decades-long quest. In 1992, Blum, who is white, lost his only political run, failing to unseat the Black Democratic incumbent in a majority-Black Houston congressional district that had never elected a Republican. Blum sued Texas, citing racial gerrymandering, and eventually won the case in the US Supreme Court in 1996. By the late 1990s, he had quit his day job as a stockbroker to focus on overturning racial equality legislation.

Since then, Blum has made a career of recruiting plaintiffs to challenge civil rights he opposes. His wins include Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, which nullified key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Less successful was Fisher v. University of Texas, decided in 2016, his first attempt to have the court undo affirmative action, in which his handpicked plaintiff was a white woman. After losing Fisher, Blum changed his strategy, announcing that his new litigation vehicle, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), “needed Asian plaintiffs.” Critics cite that admission as evidence that Blum is using Asian Americans not only to refute accusations that he is driven by white resentment, but also to weaponize the “model minority” myth for his own white supremacist ends.

Blum denies this. But he openly claims that racial equality legislation has overcorrected for centuries of Black oppression and maintains that he wants “to restore the original colorblind principles to our nation’s civil rights laws.” After his 1996 win against Texas, Blum filed successful lawsuits challenging racial gerrymandering in Virginia, South Carolina, and New York. Though Blum told The Guardian in 2016 that he “would challenge any racial gerrymander if I had the resources to do so,” he has yet to sue over racist Republican gerrymandering, which exploded after he succeeded in gutting the Voting Rights Act.

Aside from his lawsuits to end affirmative action, Blum’s support of Asian Americans is spotty. In 2000, a voting provision for Native Hawaiians was overturned with Blum’s support. Back then, he claimed he was outraged that Black Hawaiians were being disenfranchised “35 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act”—the same act he later decimated. He engineered 2016’s Evenwel v. Abbott, which would have disenfranchised up to 700,000 Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans in Texas, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice. He was a vocal proponent of the Trump administration’s unsuccessful effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which numerous Asian American advocacy groups lobbied against. In 2021, Blum founded the Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment, which has forced the State of California to scrap statutes that increase corporate board seats for marginalized groups, including Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Hawaiians.

Though Blum calls himself a “one-man organization,” his work is financed by familiar right-wing entities. The Project on Fair Representation, one of Blum’s many litigation nonprofits, began as an internal program of Donors Trust, a funding vehicle bankrolled by conservative mega-donors, including the Koch, DeVos, and Mercer families. Donors Trust has also funneled more than $1.5 million to the white supremacist outlets VDARE and American Renaissance, both considered hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (VDARE’s take on the affirmative action case? It “would be a huge victory for whites, but Conservatism Inc. seems quite uncomfortable with stating that fact,” an article on the VDARE site states. “The primary victims of Affirmative Action aren’t Asians. They are whites—the group formerly known as ‘Americans.’”) The Bradley Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation have all contributed to Blum’s litigation. The 85 Fund, which donates to his work, is led by Leonard Leo, cochairman of the Federalist Society.

Blum and SFFA’s amicus friends are frontline leaders in the anti-LGBTQ, climate denial, anti–“critical race theory,” and anti-democratic movements. Many are also funded by the same donors as Blum. The SFFA amicus brief from the Claremont Institute—which, like Blum, gets funding from the DeVos Foundation—was written by Trump “coup attorney” John Eastman. And Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Ginni, sits on the board of another amicus filer, the National Association of Scholars. (Thomas hasn’t recused himself in the affirmative action case, although Harvard Board of Overseers member Ketanji Brown Jackson has.)

If Blum really wanted to end unfair admissions preferences, he’d sue to eliminate Harvard’s “personality rating,” which disadvantages Asian students. Or he’d target preferences for athletes, legacies, the children of large donors, and the children of faculty and staff, who made up 43 percent of white Harvard admissions between 2009 and 2014. Blum’s own expert, Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, has stated that affirmative action “for African American and Hispanic applicants could not explain the disproportionately negative effect Harvard’s admission system has on Asian Americans.”

What’s more, SFFA ignores that the Asian American community has the greatest wealth gap of any group. South Asian and Pacific Islander groups, who have some of the lowest educational attainment and income levels in the country, benefit greatly from affirmative action. (Blum knows this. SFFA’s lawsuit against Yale states that all “references to Asian applicants will exclude” students “who identify as Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, or Vietnamese.”) Eliminating affirmative action will increase Harvard’s Asian admissions by just 3 percent; white enrollment will likely rise by 8 percent, per Berkeley economist and Harvard witness David Card. Blum has used Harvard’s artificial scarcity economy to pit nonwhite groups against each other. The beneficiary of that scuffle is always white supremacy.

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