While You’re Busy Mocking Abigail Fisher, the Powerful Racist Forces Behind Her Are Getting a Pass

It might feel good to mock “Becky with the bad grades,” but focusing on her lets the real power players in her anti-affirmative action case off the hook.

Jon Booth June 27, 2016

This post first appeared at Orches­trat­ed Pulse.

Though privilege discourse can be useful in certain situations, its analysis—especially when it centers personal actions and beliefs—cannot capture the powerful forces at work in Fisher. Implicitly or explicitly, centering Abigail’s individual privilege and merit distracts from the importance of institutions and obscures the systemic power of those who operate through them.

On Thurs­day, the short-hand­ed Supreme Court defied expec­ta­tions by declar­ing the affir­ma­tive action pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas con­sti­tu­tion­al. The deci­sion was under­stand­ably greet­ed with cel­e­bra­tions by lib­er­al activists — though tem­pered by frus­tra­tion over the court’s immi­gra­tion deci­sion released the same day. In addi­tion, Abi­gail Fish­er pre­dictably came in for anoth­er round of Inter­net mock­ery. In our post-Lemon­ade world, #Beck­y­with­the­bad­grades became the hash­tag of choice to dis­cuss the deci­sion on Twitter.

It is not sur­pris­ing that the reac­tion to the deci­sion focused on Abi­gail her­self. Media cov­er­age of the case when it was argued this win­ter also focused pri­mar­i­ly on the plain­tiff: her medi­oc­rity, her race-bait­ing law­suit,” and, most of all, her priv­i­lege. It encour­aged her to #stay­mad­ab­by and com­pared her to a boiled and condi­ment-less hot dog sit­ting in a room-tem­per­a­ture bun.”

Judg­ing from the head­lines, Abi­gail Fish­er is at the same time a stu­dent who did not mer­it admis­sion to a state uni­ver­si­ty and a racist genius who brought the most impor­tant anti-affir­ma­tive action case in decades to the Supreme Court. But if we ignore mer­it for a moment and focus instead on pow­er, we see that all of the atten­tion lav­ished on Abi­gail Fish­er has obscured the role of much more pow­er­ful peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions — most impor­tant­ly Edward Blum, a pow­er­ful white suprema­cist who is the dri­ving force” behind the lawsuit.

The Man Behind the Curtain

When Abi­gail Fish­er was still in dia­pers, the man who would even­tu­al­ly steer her case toward the Supreme Court was mak­ing his first attacks upon race-con­scious laws, ini­tial­ly as a plain­tiff. Though he is not a lawyer, Blum decid­ed to advance his racist ide­ol­o­gy in the courts after two failed runs for office in the 1990s. With the sup­port of a num­ber of con­ser­v­a­tive donors such as the Bradley Foun­da­tion, Blum has spent years orga­niz­ing and fil­ing law­suits on the behalf of oth­ers against laws and prac­tices that sup­port racial equal­i­ty, under the aus­pices of his innocu­ous­ly-named Project on Fair Representation.

In addi­tion to Fish­er, Blum has also backed the law­suit that gut­ted the Vot­ing Rights Act. He also filed ami­cus briefs sup­port­ing the plain­tiffs in Par­ents Involved in Com­mu­ni­ty Schools v. Seat­tle, which struck down Seattle’s vol­un­tary school deseg­re­ga­tion plan, as well as Texas Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­ni­ty Affairs v. The Inclu­sive Com­mu­ni­ties Project, which failed to destroy the 1968 Fair Hous­ing Act. Blum’s racist ide­ol­o­gy has found fer­tile ground in the myopic views of the Supreme Court’s right-wing jus­tices who claim that The way to stop dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of race is to stop dis­crim­i­nat­ing on the basis of race.”

Blum’s most impor­tant vic­to­ry, Shel­by Coun­ty v. Hold­er, entered the judi­cial sys­tem in a sim­i­lar way to Fish­er. Its his­to­ry helps to estab­lish Blum’s modus operan­di. After notic­ing that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice had reject­ed a redis­trict­ing plan in Shel­by Coun­ty, Alaba­ma, Blum con­nect­ed with a local attor­ney and cold-called coun­ty offi­cials until he found some­one will­ing to file a law­suit. As Blum told the New York Times, I find the plain­tiff, I find the lawyer and I put them togeth­er.” Blum filed the Shel­by Coun­ty suit after the Supreme Court failed to strike down the Vot­ing Rights Act in a sim­i­lar case backed by Blum, North­west Austin Munic­i­pal Util­i­ty Dis­trict v. Hold­er. In Shel­by Coun­ty, how­ev­er, Blum was suc­cess­ful, and in 2013 the Supreme Court crit­i­cal­ly weak­ened the Vot­ing Rights Act, with the pre­dictable reper­cus­sion of racist vot­er sup­pres­sion.

The Priv­i­lege of a Pawn

Blum is an obses­sive work­er. Even as he was shep­herd­ing Shel­by Coun­ty through the courts, he was search­ing for a plain­tiff to file a case chal­leng­ing affir­ma­tive action in col­lege admis­sions. He went so far as to set up a web­site fish­ing for poten­tial plain­tiffs. Though the web­site did not pan out, Blum found a moment of white suprema­cist syn­er­gy: his old friend Richard Fish­er is Abigail’s father, and when she was reject­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas, Blum took action. In Abi­gail, Blum found a white face for his lawsuit.

But Blum’s decade-long ide­o­log­i­cal cru­sade demon­strates an obvi­ous truth. If Blum hadn’t cho­sen Fish­er, inter­net per­son­al­i­ties would be rev­el­ing in the fail­ure of some oth­er mar­gin­al­ly com­pe­tent white or East Asian teen who had been reject­ed from a uni­ver­si­ty prac­tic­ing affir­ma­tive action. More­over, Blum’s con­nec­tions to con­ser­v­a­tive donors were key to cre­at­ing the case: Fisher’s father has admit­ted that if he had had to pay the legal fees, the case nev­er would have pro­ceed­ed. Beyond mere­ly get­ting the case filed and pay­ing for the lawyers, Blum also stage-man­aged” Fisher’s pub­lic per­sona for the case. After the first argu­ment of Fisher’s case before the Supreme Court, Abi­gail recit­ed from mem­o­ry a state­ment Blum had writ­ten for her” to the press.

Clear­ly, Fish­er was not about Abi­gail. To under­stand the case, Blum’s his­to­ry is far more impor­tant than Abi­gail Fisher’s SAT scores. Not only should knowl­edge of Blum’s record redi­rect our atten­tion away from Abi­gail Fish­er, but it should also cause us to ask why Blum has been so suc­cess­ful at over­turn­ing laws that had been in force for almost half a century.

The Project on Fair Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is one of many orga­ni­za­tions that aims to advance a con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da through the courts. It is unique only in its extreme­ly small size and suc­cess­ful track record. The Cen­ter for Indi­vid­ual Rights (CIR), for exam­ple, shares a num­ber of fun­ders with Blum’s group, includ­ing the Bradley Foun­da­tion — which clear­ly sees a con­nec­tion between union bust­ing and white suprema­cy. The CIR was the prin­ci­pal backer of the case Friedrichs v. Cal­i­for­nia Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion which chal­lenged the fund­ing struc­ture of pub­lic employ­ee unions. It appears that the con­ser­v­a­tive jus­tices, who begged for such a case to be brought, had planned to use the First Amend­ment to fur­ther weak­en orga­nized labor. Antonin Scalia’s death, how­ev­er, dis­rupt­ed those plans and an even­ly divid­ed court allowed pub­lic sec­tor unions to survive.

Blum’s suc­cess has been due, in large part, to the reac­tionary Supreme Court, which has been look­ing for an excuse to strike down laws that pro­tect both black Amer­i­cans and orga­nized labor. The first decade of the Roberts Court has been char­ac­ter­ized by the aggres­sive pro­mo­tion of a right-wing agen­da. Push­ing aside the reign­ing con­ser­v­a­tive doc­trine of judi­cial restraint that emerged in response to the pro­gres­sive deci­sions of the 1950s and 1960s, Roberts and the oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive jus­tices have con­sis­tent­ly over­ruled prece­dents and inter­pret­ed the Con­sti­tu­tion to ben­e­fit the pow­er­ful. At times they have worked almost hand-in-hand with right-wing advo­ca­cy groups such as the CIR, rad­i­cal­ly rein­ter­pret­ing the First Amend­ment in cas­es such as Cit­i­zens Unit­ed.

When the Court has this much pow­er and moti­va­tion, focus­ing on details of the under­ly­ing case, such as Abi­gail Fisher’s sub­par grades, is irrel­e­vant. Based on his record, Blum is with­out a doubt one of the most effec­tive sup­port­ers of white suprema­cy in the Unit­ed States; but, unlike Abi­gail Fish­er, he has large­ly stayed out of the spotlight.

That the atten­tion of so many peo­ple — and so many jour­nal­ists” — has been focused so square­ly on Abi­gail and not on Blum and the com­po­si­tion of the Supreme Court is frankly a tragedy.

Most of the small amount of media cov­er­age on Blum is from 2012, and it appears that no jour­nal­ist has even both­ered to call him and ask him how he feels about his legal suc­cess­es since then. Even in the wide­spread cov­er­age of the Fish­er deci­sion, there were no quotes from Blum. He was invis­i­ble. Some out­lets even con­tin­ued to misiden­ti­fy him as Abigail’s attorney.

Among the Left, web jour­nal­ists and com­men­ta­tors know they’ll get more clicks from decry­ing a white woman’s priv­i­lege or medi­oc­rity than explor­ing Blum’s racist cru­sade. In the end, the sto­ry of Fish­er v. Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas can nei­ther be under­stood nor com­bat­ed with­in the lan­guage of priv­i­lege or mer­i­toc­ra­cy. Though priv­i­lege dis­course can be use­ful in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, its analy­sis — espe­cial­ly when it cen­ters per­son­al actions and beliefs — can­not cap­ture the pow­er­ful forces at work in Fish­er. Implic­it­ly or explic­it­ly, cen­ter­ing Abigail’s indi­vid­ual priv­i­lege and mer­it dis­tracts from the impor­tance of insti­tu­tions and obscures the sys­temic pow­er of those who oper­ate through them.

The infra­struc­ture of con­ser­v­a­tive foun­da­tions is strong and its focus goes well beyond the courts. The same orga­ni­za­tions that fund Blum’s law­suits also sup­port local, state and fed­er­al can­di­dates and even write racist and anti-union leg­is­la­tion through groups such as the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil. If we want to make sure that the vic­to­ries of past gen­er­a­tions are secure — and maybe even win some vic­to­ries of our own — we need to build enough pow­er so that Samuel Ali­to and his white (and black) allies don’t feel secure attack­ing them. But sim­ply ridi­cul­ing pawns like Abi­gail Fish­er plays into their hands, allow­ing con­ser­v­a­tive elites to strip away our rights and fur­ther dis­em­pow­er our polit­i­cal move­ments with impunity. 

Edward Blum has made con­sol­i­dat­ing white eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er his life’s work. Our goal should not be to make him believe in racial equal­i­ty, but to make sure he fails.

Jon Booth is a Ph.D. stu­dent in His­to­ry at Har­vard and a JD can­di­date at Har­vard Law School. He stud­ies the inter­twined his­to­ry of race, crime, and post-slav­ery eman­ci­pa­tion in the Atlantic World.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH