This 2019 post was authored by freelance journalist Brendan O’Connor.
Hours before opening fire at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, killing eleven and injuring seven more, Robert Bowers, the suspected shooter and an avowed white supremacist, stated his intentions. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he wrote on Gab, a social network popular with fascists and other violent reactionaries. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” He was referring to an anti-Semitic iteration of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, wherein Jews are orchestrating sweeping demographic changes by importing migrants, refugees, and various kinds of foreigners—namely, non-white foreigners—and thereby replacing white Americans as the dominant race in the United States. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, is the subject of much fixation among those who subscribe to these theories, like Bowers. “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” he wrote weeks before the attack, linking to a directory of synagogues participating in the National Refugee Shabbat, a HIAS project. “We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”
The attack on Tree of Life was not only an attack on Jews but also an attack on immigrants—the convergence of rising anti-Semitism and nativism in a single act. As far as we know, Bowers was not a member of any organized group, but the digital footprint he left indicates that he was a man deeply inculcated in the militant racism of the far right, an ideology promoted and endorsed by President Trump but far from dependent on him. (In fact, Bowers was ultimately disappointed by Trump, criticizing him as a “globalist.”) A network of nativist think tanks and nonprofits have supplied the Trump immigration regime with policies and personnel even as the network’s representatives promote those policies in the media, on academic panels, and in the halls of Congress—all propped up by tens of millions of dollars from a private foundation headquartered just five miles west of the Tree of Life congregation, endowed by one of the city’s wealthiest scions.
In life, Cordelia Scaife May—heir to the Scaife family fortune, a branch of the Mellon family—used the Colcom Foundation as her primary funding vehicle for various philanthropic projects, chief among them supporting the work of her friend, Dr. John Tanton, a eugenicist who used May’s money to establish many of the nonprofits and think tanks now buttressing President Trump’s immigration regime. “I have come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist, it requires a European-American majority and a clear one at that,” Tanton wrote in a 1993 letter. “I doubt very much that our traditions will be carried on by other peoples.” Having no children, May left the bulk of her wealth to Colcom upon her death in 2005, which received more than $441 million from her estate and the Cordelia S. May Family Trust in the years following. The foundation’s contributions to Tanton’s projects skyrocketed, pouring at least $108 million to his network between 2005 and 2015.
In 2016, according to its most recent tax filing, Colcom made $20.5 million in contributions to groups promoting immigration restrictions, including $19.1 million to organizations founded by Tanton. The largest of these contributions went to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA, which received more than $7 million apiece. FAIR put the money towards a “heartbreaking video series” featuring “victims of illegal alien crimes” like Kate Steinle, over whose death white nationalists and the so-called “alt-right” likewise obsessed. Elsewhere, FAIR operatives lobbied against the ENLIST Act, which would have granted permanent resident status to some undocumented immigrants if they serve in the U.S. military, and in support of Congressman John Culberson’s (R-TX) efforts to deny federal grants to sanctuary cities. FAIR’s crowning achievement in 2016, however, was the slew of policy proposals it developed for President Trump’s transition team, many of which the administration has embraced. “We’ve been in the wilderness, and overnight we are not anymore,” NumbersUSA executive director Roy Beck said after the election.
The Colcom Foundation complements its support for nativism with extensive contributions to regional environmental and conservationist groups. (May and Tanton first came to know each other as a result of their shared interest in the environment.) According to the foundation’s website, its funding interests include “ensuring quality of life and environmental sustainability in southwestern Pennsylvania” and “programs that enhance Pittsburgh’s vitality and livability.” In other words, Colcom, which spends tens of millions of dollars funding the kind of anti-immigrant nativism that motivated Robert Bowers, is also paying for public-private green spaces and providing support for ostensibly progressive groups, individual academics, and seemingly non-partisan institutions like museums and libraries.
Following the synagogue shooting in October, a coalition of activists in Pittsburgh, including immigration justice groups, faith leaders, and labor organizations, began a campaign calling on local institutions to divest from the Colcom Foundation, specifically petitioning the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which was hosting the city’s holiday market—with funding from Colcom. “No organization that aligns itself with immigrants’ rights should be taking money from Colcom,” Monica Ruiz, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Casa San Jose, told Sludge. “You can’t stand in solidarity with immigrants if you’re taking money from them.”
A petition the activists circulated demanded that the Downtown Partnership return all of the foundation’s contributions—at least $1.5 million between 2014 and 2016—remove the foundation’s logo from all Holiday Market signage, and “issue a public apology for normalizing Colcom’s many years lobbying for a white nationalist agenda.” Shortly thereafter, the Downtown Partnership ceded to the coalition’s second demand, removing Colcom’s name from promotional materials.
“The recent attention regarding Colcom Foundation’s funding has deflected from our mission and the positive results which the Holiday Market generates, so at the request of Colcom Foundation we have removed signage from the market acknowledging their support,” Leigh White, a spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership, wrote in an email to Sludge. “The PDP encourages further community dialogue on this topic and will continue to focus on ensuring we produce events that are open to all, and support the development of a vibrant, welcoming Downtown.”
Ruiz told Sludge that the activist coalition, which includes at least one group that formerly accepted Colcom money and has subsequently divested, has been reaching out to other organizations that receive contributions from Colcom, not only to educate them about its political agenda but to help them find alternative funding sources. “They’re terrible people that have a lot of money and power and know where to put their money and power,” Ruiz said. “It’s easier to not know and not do the research and believe that they’re good than to do the research and discover how horrible they are.”
Sludge sought comment from all of the organizations unrelated to immigration that received “major grants” of $50,000 or more in 2018 from the Colcom Foundation. Most did not respond to inquiries asking whether they would reconsider taking Colcom’s money in the future.
“We can’t speculate about future funding decisions,” Betsy Momich, a spokesperson for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, wrote to Sludge in an email. According to tax filings, the Colcom Foundation gave more than $3.1 million to the Carnegie Institute, which administers the museums, between 2011 and 2016. The American Red Cross also deflected. “The American Red Cross is grateful to our donors who support our life-saving mission to prevent and alleviate suffering in the face of emergencies,” the organization said in an emailed statement. “The Red Cross is guided by seven fundamental principles—two of which are impartiality and neutrality—which allow us to help people all over the globe, regardless of political views or affiliation.” Colcom donated $850,000 to the Red Cross between 2011 and 2016.
The Allegheny Conference, which received $781,000 from Colcom between 2011 and 2016, advocates for a more just and sustainable regional economy through public-private partnerships. Despite encouraging supporters “to stand against hate of all kinds” following the Tree of Life shooting, the organization nevertheless remains committed to taking Colcom’s money. “As is the case with any membership organization, we may not agree on everything, but we work together to make our region a better place. The Colcom Foundation is one such member,” Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference, said in a statement. “The Colcom Foundation has always welcomed a thoughtful and vigorous dialogue when our views differ. We look forward to continuing this conversation as we work with natives and newcomers to create a sustainable region for the future.” The statement continues: “Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s an economic imperative for our region’s continued growth and prosperity.”
The Conference was not the only organization to emphasize the ostensible importance of agreeing to disagree. “Compassion & Choices focuses exclusively on improving and expanding healthcare options at the end of life for everyone, a rare issue that national polling shows receives majority support in virtually every demographic group: religion, political party, race and gender,” Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion & Choices, said in a written statement. “To continue our progress, we must unite people around their common support for liberty and personal autonomy at the end of life, while recognizing that our supporters are likely to disagree on other issues.”
The Conservation Fund, which received $500,000 from Colcom between 2011 and 2016, declined to comment. So too did Dr. Peter Smyntek, a researcher at St. Vincent College who received a $196,000 grant from Colcom to measure the effects of sewage and mine water pollution. A spokesperson for Earthworks said that the organization was “deliberating internally” what to do about the funding it has received from Colcom (at least $240,000 over four years for various environmental accountability programs) but could not provide a statement until those deliberations concluded.
The Republican Party’s official climate denial notwithstanding, the existence of a tacit alignment between environmentalists and nativists comes as no surprise to historians of either; moreover, the politics of climate change and the resultant mass displacement are likely to bring this alignment to the fore once again. Already operatives across the Tanton network are seeking to re-introduce reactionary ideas and nativist politics to the environmental movement. Jerry Kammer, a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), has repeatedly castigated the Sierra Club for what he describes as its “retreat” from immigration restrictionism in favor of “a campaign to discredit and even demonize enforcement of immigration laws while willfully ignoring the environmental damage that effective enforcement can prevent.” Spencer Raley, a research associate at FAIR, lamented in an April 2018 blog post that “immigration-driven population growth” was leading to increased pollution and deforestation. “Without slowing immigration,” he wrote, “every environmental cause is ultimately a lost cause.” Both CIS and FAIR are Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate groups.
This sentiment has gained traction in the upper echelons of the right-wing media apparatus. “I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration: It produces a huge amount of litter,” Tucker Carlson said on his show in August, a sentiment he repeated in December when he claimed that immigrants make the United States “dirtier.” Last year, writing at The Daily Caller, Ann Coulter invoked a choice “between a green America and a brown America.” Wittingly or not, each were echoing John Tanton himself, who warned in a 1997 that the United States was on the verge of being overwhelmed with immigrants “defecating and creating garbage and looking for jobs.”
Meanwhile, approximately $91 million of the Colcom Foundation’s assets are held in private hedge funds and venture capital firms, many of which (Kayne Anderson Energy Fund, Westwood Global Investments, and Tortoise MLP, for example) invest heavily in the fossil fuel industry. Colcom also holds more than $8 million in stocks and bonds in extractive and energy businesses.
“The Foundation addresses root causes of the demand for fossil fuel use and dependency. Multiple demand-reducing strategies are needed in the transition to a more sustainable state,” a Colcom spokesperson wrote in response to questions from Sludge. Also: “The Foundation categorically rejects the practice and proponents of intolerance. They are incompatible with the values of the organization and its personnel.”
CORRECTION: This article referred incorrectly to Dr. John Tanton as a “Nazi sympathizer.” An email to Sludge from Tanton’s lawyer states that “Tanton neither supports nor sympathizes with Nazi ideology or Nazism.” Dr. Tanton espouses the biological approach of Konrad Lorenz, an ethologist stripped of his honorary doctorate because of his membership in the Nazi party (1938) and embrace of Nazi ideals.