On Thursday, ProPublica published an already much-discussed story, “The Other Billionaires Who Helped Clarence Thomas Live a Luxe Life” — one of a handful of articles since April putting details of Justice Thomas’ life outside the court under scrutiny.
This series, along with recent pieces in The New York Times, is a social portrait of Thomas where the optics are more suggestive than the facts: pictures of yachts and planes and private resorts, anecdotes of glamorous vacations, pictures of Thomas smoking cigars with wealthy friends. Still, these optics have liberated Thomas’ detractors to say things they may have fantasized about before but only rarely said: that Thomas’ “unethical behavior” makes him a “21st century Uncle Tom,” that Thomas is the equivalent of a “house slave,” and that Thomas is such a sellout to power and wealth that any comparison is “an Insult to [even] Uncle Tom.”
In Washington, Sens. Dick Durbin, Ron Wyden, and Sheldon Whitehouse’s public statements have implied Thomas is corrupt. But what if the optics are misleading? What if the driving force behind these allegations, ProPublica, is the real sellout to power? Both ProPublica’s history and inconsistencies surrounding its attacks on Thomas suggest an unsettling answer to those questions.
ProPublica owes its existence to the Sandler Foundation, funded by Herb and Marion Sandler, who owed their fortune to subprime mortgage investments through their firm Golden West Financial Corp., and whom The Los Angeles Times described as being in “the vanguard of untraditional home lending.” That’s because the firm offered a “Pick-a-Pay adjustable-rate mortgage … which allowed borrowers to make artificially low monthly payments, increasing the principal they owed.”
Off this innovation, “the Sandlers became fixtures on the lists of the highest-paid CEOs in the US,” but when the Sandlers sold Golden West to Wachovia Bank for a reported $25 billion, its $120 billion adjustable-rate home-loan portfolio was so riddled with toxic assets that it forced Wachovia to try an aborted merger with Citigroup. Eventually, Wachovia merged with Wells Fargo to limit its financial liability, positioning it to receive government funds in the 2008 bailout.
The fallout from this disaster wasn’t absorbed equally. Herb Sandler, who said the assets’ toxicity was “an isolated case here and there,” walked away with $2.3 billion in 2006 and founded ProPublica as part of his left-leaning investments, declaring that he “can’t stand the powerful taking advantage of those with less power.” Elite-educated journalists cut adrift by the rise of the internet benefited from Sandler’s commitment since Sandler employed them at ProPublica.
Meanwhile, the real reversal of fortune was felt by the mostly black homebuyers who lost about a third of their wealth between 2007 and 2010 and 35 percent of whose households had zero or negative net worth by 2009. This fallout was the latest in a series of blows to black Americans abetted by people like Sandler and fellow ProPublica donor George Soros, the hedge funder whose Open Societies Foundation, founded in 1993, supported the open-borders policies that outsourced jobs from the black community — and made Soros rich. Blue-collar decline hit black men exactly as they were ready to enter the workforce on equal terms, powering neighborhood decay and crime in the cities, and mortgage lenders helped black families escape to the suburbs — and straight into a housing disaster.
As it happens, fighting back against exactly this kind of dependency and manipulation is a key part of Thomas’ judicial philosophy. In his view, forged through his experiences as a black man among the institutional elite, America’s largest institutions try to make people, especially those on its lower rungs, dependent, and representative democracy offers a way to fight back.
Thomas isn’t the first or only person to have this view, but as even Thomas’ more perceptive detractors partly acknowledge, he’s the only Supreme Court justice who holds it so clearly. His originalism can be read, in part, as an extension of it: giving power back to the American people and taking it away from insider institutionalists, whether admissions deans who want to categorize people by amorphous racial considerations or government-backed conglomerates, which he rules are subject to the will of the people through state legislatures. In this read of Thomas’ career, he’s the one pushing against the centralizing corruption abetted by the Sandlers — the same corruption that funds ProPublica.
But this isn’t the preferred story about Thomas or the Sandlers in established media such as The New York Times, which in 2020 reported that the Sandlers’ daughter Susan announced a gift of $200 million through the same foundation that funds ProPublica to fund “racial equity” projects — and failed to mention the source of the Sandlers’ wealth.
Nor is it the preferred story at ProPublica, which, as with other requested disclosures, isn’t forthcoming about the ambiguous history of its funders. Instead, ProPublica has put its commitment to “racial equity” front and center, not just with stories but with personnel committed to the cause, including a board of directors and advisers who have benefited from the same institutions that helped make the Sandlers rich. A look at their CVs not only suggests these peoples’ collective institutional heft and mutual connections. It also suggests that ProPublica’s attacks on Thomas might be more coordinated than they’re being portrayed.
In 2019, Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor and leftist political theorist previously on the board of ProPublica, was a co-leader of a prominent group of academics hosted by Harlan Crow at his estate, and this group raised objections to the Nazi memorabilia they saw among his collection, objections which the group leaders discussed with members and conveyed to Crow. Crow is famously a collector of art and historical artifacts related to famous tyrants, dictators, and communist revolutionaries, in remembrance of communism’s victims.
“This is my era. I was born in 1949,” Crow said in an Atlantic interview discussing his famous Garden of Evil. “Communism was the great threat to the world.”
A Mother Jones story about Allen’s visit to Crow’s collection, which ran four days after ProPublica’s first story about Crow, does not disclose her link to ProPublica. And the ProPublica stories about Crow don’t disclose Allen’s group’s interactions with him. Interestingly, though Allen’s group members said they were surprised by the memorabilia, Crow’s Nazi collection was already in the news, accessible to anyone looking to vet a potential host.
Crow’s connection to Thomas was also already well-known thanks to a 2011 New York Times piece published when Jill Abramson, on ProPublica’s Board of Advisers, was the Times’ executive editor. (Before she became executive editor, Abramson worked in other positions at the Times, where a colleague was ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg, whose name surfaced in connection to demonstrably flawed Times’ stories.) And the Washingtonian piece, which re-broke news of Crow’s Nazi collection after the first ProPublica piece on Crow, ran only one day after the ProPublica piece.
These facts at the very least suggest a question: did ProPublica’s “research in some obscure corners of the internet,” which led it to Crow in the first place, happen off a suggestion by someone close to the organization? After all, anyone who knew of Nazi regalia at Crow’s home and his connection to Thomas could have taken from the encounter the idea that this man, closely connected to Thomas, was vulnerable to criticism and could make the justice vulnerable, too. They could have seen, in the words of New Republic editor and Washington insider Michael Tomasky, the chance to “destroy Clarence Thomas’s Reputation” and “make him a metaphor for every insidious thing the far right has done to this country.”
But questions like these won’t be asked because, unlike Clarence Thomas, these operators are part of institutions immune from real scrutiny. Meantime, a high-tech lynching against an establishment dissident is happening again, but it’s more high-tech than before, and it’s not confined to the Senate chamber.