The obscure foundation funding "Critical Race Theory" hysteria

Critical Race Theory (CRT), once a little-known academic concept, is now at the center of the national political discussion. CRT is discussed incessantly on Fox News. It is featured in campaign advertisements. And legislation banning it is advancing in statehouses around the country. 

This didn't happen on its own. Rather, there is a constellation of non-profit groups and media outlets that are systematically injecting CRT into our politics. In 2020, most people had never heard of CRT. In 2021, a chorus of voices on the right insists it is an existential threat to the country. 

A Popular Information investigation reveals that many of the entities behind the CRT panic share a common funding source: The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.

The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has no website and its namesake founder keeps a low public profile. Thomas W. Smith is based in Boca Raton, Florida, and founded a hedge fund called Prescott Investors in 1973. In 2008, the New York Times reported that The Thomas W. Smith Foundation was "dedicated to supporting free markets."

More information about the foundation can be gleaned from its public tax filings, which are called 990-PFs. The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has more than $24 million in assets. The person who spends the most time working for the group is not Smith but James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. According to the foundation's 2019 990-PF, Piereson was paid $283,333 to work for The Thomas W. Smith Foundation for 25 hours per week.

Piereson was also paid $140,000 in 2019 as an independent contractor for the Manhattan Institute, where Thomas W. Smith is a trustee. While Thomas W. Smith avoids public comments, Piereson is prolific. And Piereson's writings provide insight into what is motivating the foundation's grants. 

The people and groups behind anti-CRT hysteria claim that there is a radical new theory being taught in schools that seeks to make white people hate themselves and define everyone exclusively by their race. None of this is true. But Piereson provides an insight into the underlying ideology that explains why so much effort is being put into perpetuating these myths.

Piereson has made clear that he opposes efforts to increase racial or economic equality, even if these efforts are financed by private charities. Piereson described his views in a 2019 op-ed in the Washington Examiner:

[C]haritable foundations have felt the great sustained pressure to “pay up” for alleged sins against the ideals of racial and economic equality. It started out as pressure from a few vocal activists banging on the doors of large foundations. It's turned into a movement in which philanthropic leaders are falling over themselves to throw money at their critics in hopes of mollifying them...

In another column published in 2019 in the Wall Street Journal, Piereson objected to the Surdna Foundation spending money on "community-led efforts that target the root causes of economic and racial inequities" because its deceased founder John Emory Andrus was a capitalist and would not have approved. 

In a 2017 column, Piereson criticized liberal philanthropists for focusing on "climate change, income inequality, [and] immigrant rights," describing these as "radical causes." He stressed the need for "a counterbalance provided by right-leaning philanthropies." 

Piereson also opposes classes dedicated to the study of women, Black people, or the LGBTQ community in universities, saying these topics lack "academic rigor." 

In the 1960s, universities caved to the demands of radicals on campus by expanding academic departments to include women's studies, black studies, and, more recently, "queer studies." These programs are college mainstays, making up in ideological vigor what they lack in academic rigor.

He opposes efforts to diversify professors or students on college campuses saying "diversity-promotion efforts on campus actually increase resentment on the part of both white and minority students." Piereson argued that "racial bigotry and violence against women" is not a big problem on college campuses. He says that concerns about these issues are "irrational." 

How did CRT, a complex theory that explains how structural racism is embedded in the law, get redefined to represent corporate diversity trainings and high school classes on the history of slavery? The foundation funding much of the anti-CRT effort is run by a person who opposes all efforts to increase diversity at powerful institutions and laments the introduction of curriculum about the historical treatment of Black people. 

It's hard to generate excitement around tired arguments opposing diversity and racial equality. It's easier to advocate against CRT, a term that sounds scary but no one really understands. 

The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has donated more than $12.7 million to 21 organizations attacking Critical Race Theory

Between 2017 and 2019, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation has granted at least $12.75 million to organizations that publicly attack Critical Race Theory, according to a review of tax disclosures by Popular Information. The foundation's grants for 2020 will not be disclosed until late-2021.

The Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has recently been at the forefront of the crusade against CRT. It is also the top recipient of cash from The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.

In recent months, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the organization, has gained notoriety for spurring anti-CRT panic, describing CRT as an “existential threat to the United States.” Last year, Rufo appeared on the Tucker Carlson show and insisted that Trump must “immediately issue” an executive order “abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government.” Trump quickly took his advice.

Most recently, Rufo published an op-ed in the New York Post falsely claiming that CRT is centered around “race essentialism, collective guilt and state-sanctioned discrimination,” adding that the “war against critical race theory is a war worth fighting.” He also accuses public schools of “pushing toxic racial theories onto children.”

Yet, as Popular Information previously explained, Rufo is misrepresenting CRT for political purposes. In March 2021, Rufo acknowledged that he is simply using CRT as a vessel to capture concepts he thinks are politically unpopular. As Sarah Jones of New York Magazine recently wrote, Rufo “takes critical-race theory as a concept, strips it of all meaning, and repurposes it as a catchall for white grievances.”

Rufo's own tweets confirm his tactics. “We have decodified [CRT]…and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans,” Rufo tweeted. 

The Thomas W. Smith Foundation donated $4.32 million to the Manhattan Institute between 2017 and 2019. 

The Heritage Foundation

The right-wing Heritage Foundation, which previously employed Rufo, also receives substantial support from Thomas W. Smith Foundation. According to tax filings, the Heritage Foundation has received at least $525,000 from The Thomas W. Smith Foundation between 2017 and 2019.

In June 2021, the executive director of the Heritage Foundation told Politico that fighting “critical race theory is one of the top two issues [the] group is working on alongside efforts to tighten voting laws.” 

On its website, the organization has an entire page dedicated to justifying the attack on CRT. It claims that the legal framework “is infecting everything from politics and education to the workplace and the military.” 

The foundation is also a key player in pushing anti-CRT legislation. Since at least last winter, the Heritage Foundation has been hosting webinars and private briefings with lawmakers to “discuss model legislation to block critical race theory,” reports NBC News.

ALEC

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that has been hosting webinars to help lawmakers draft legislation banning CRT, has received at least $425,000 from The Thomas W. Smith Foundation since 2017. In December 2020, ALEC hosted a workshop in partnership with the Heritage Foundation on “Reclaiming Education and the American Dream...Against Critical Race Theory's Onslaught.”

Other recipients of funds from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation include: 

  • The American Enterprise Institute has received $1.1 million since 2017. In May 2021, an AEI research fellow published an op-ed titled “Ban Critical Theory now,” arguing that “CRT amounts to institutionalized racial hatred.”

  • The Alexander Hamilton Institute (AHI), a conservative educational organization, has received $150,000 since 2017. In March 2021, the organization celebrated the appearance of an AHI alum on the Tucker Carlson show "to expose the use of Critical Race Theory to indoctrinate employees of Cigna."

  • The American Ideas Institute, a right-wing organization that publishes The American Conservative, has received $10,000 since 2017. In June, The American Conservative published an op-ed by its senior editor in which described CRT as “the acid that will dissolve America.”

  • The Center for American Greatness, a right-wing organization, has received $125,000 since 2017. On June 25, 2021, the organization published a piece titled “Canceling Critical Race Theory,” with the tag “Greatness Agenda.”

  • The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, has received $100,000 in 2019. In June 2021, a fellow at the Institute published an op-ed describing CRT as a conspiracy theory. 

  • The Daily Caller Foundation, parent organization of the right-wing news outlet co-founded by Tucker Carlson, received $100,000 in 2019. In the last week alone, the Daily Caller has published more than a dozen stories attacking CRT. 

  • The Federalist, a conservative publication, received $150,000 in 2019. The Federalist has published dozens of stories opposing CRT. It recently published a column from a woman who says she is considering pulling her kids out of "one of the highest-rated public school systems in Pennsylvania...because of critical race theory." 

  • Heterodox Academy, a coalition of academics that seek “viewpoint diversity on college campuses,” has received $250,000 since 2018. In February 2021, affiliates of the Heterodox Academy published an op-ed attacking CRT for "blaming and shaming individuals."

  • The Independent Women’s Forum, a right-wing public policy group, has received $125,000 since 2017. The organization claims CRT is a “pernicious ideology that rejects the goals and objectives of the American civil rights movement by encouraging people to think of each other, first and foremost, not as individuals, but as members of distinct racial categories.”

  • Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation, has received $150,000 since 2017. The organization has described CRT as a “totalitarian assault on children.” 

  • The State Policy Network (SPN), a network of conservative think tanks that focus on state-level politics, has received $3.57 million since 2017. SPN works closely with The Heritage Foundation to promote opposition to CRT.

  • Turning Point, a conservative youth group founded by Charlie Kirk, has received $400,000 since 2017. It promotes social media optimized anti-CRT content. One recent headline: "Critical Race Theory DESTROYED By Illinois Dad."

  • The National Review, a conservative magazine and website, has received $45,000 since 2018. The site publishes multiple anti-CRT articles daily. One recent column warns that CRT is an effort to "brainwash the next generation into thinking everything is about racism."

  • PragerU, a right-wing media company that produces popular videos, received $100,000 in 2019. A PragerU video from April 2021, which has been viewed 1.5 million times, asserts that CRT will "change the nature of America and the way you live." The video compares CRT in the United States with Nazism in Germany.

  • The Real Clear Foundation, which supports investigative journalism conducted by Real Clear Media, has received $200,000 since 2017. A recent "investigation" supported by the Real Clear Foundation suggests CRT "encourages discrimination and other illegal policies targeting whites, males and Christians" and asserts that it "will erode the nation’s anti-discrimination law as it has developed since the 1960s."

  • The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank, has received $200,000 since 2018. A commentary published by the organization in May asserted that CRT harmed "everyone—not just the white kids who are categorized as oppressors, but children of color, who, like every child, deserve a civil, harmonious society."

  • The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, has received $210,000 since 2017. Last month, the magazine published an article that described CRT as a mechanism for "extremist indoctrination in America’s schools."

  • The Federalist Society, a right-wing legal organization, has received $720,000 since 2017. The introduction for a recent panel discussion suggested CRT "contains racial stereotypes, assigns blame to individuals based solely on their race and sex, and imputes race discrimination as the reason for all disparate outcomes in society."

  • Young America's Foundation, a conservative youth organization, has received $200,000 since 2017. The organization recently published a piece describing CRT as "a warped ideology that seeks to divide Americans and relitigate the sins of the past by pinning White Americans against Black Americans." The organization is soliciting tips from students that are "facing critical race theory indoctrination."