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These L.A. Institutions Have Been Accepting Money From an Organization That Has Also Funded ‘Anti-Immigration’ and ‘Extremist Hate Groups’

11:23 AM PDT on September 29, 2020

    [dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he Flora L. Thornton Foundation, a well known L.A.-based non-profit started by the late philanthropist Flora Laney Thornton, has been supporting some of L.A.’s most respected art and educational institutions for nearly four decades. Since the year 2000, the foundation has donated millions of dollars to The UCLA Foundation, L.A. Philharmonic, Pepperdine University, KCET, LACMA, the LA Zoo Foundation, the University of Southern California, L.A. Opera, The Autry Museum, KCRW Foundation, The L.A. Natural History Museum, The L.A. Library Foundation, and other organizations.

    According to IRS tax records, since 2004, the foundation has also donated money to the Federation For Immigration Reform (FAIR), Californians For Population Stabilization, Center For Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, Population Connection, and Progressives for Immigration. Organizations that some people consider “anti-immigrant” and have been labeled “extremist hate-groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). (Clarification: CIS and FAIR were the only organizations described as "extremist hate-groups" by the SPLC)

    Founded in 1971, the SPLC rose to prominence after successfully suing the Klu Klux Klan during the 1980s. For decades, the SPLC has monitored hate-groups and extremists. Organizations on the SPLC’s annual hate-group list, “Vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity,” and their leaders hold “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

    According to the SPLC, there are over 940 hate groups nationwide and over 14 hate groups are based in California. According to the most recent FBI data in 2018, California reported more hate crimes than any other state in the country.

    Laney Thornton, current chairman of the Flora L. Thornton Foundation, reached out to L.A. Taco after learning that we were working on a story through Rob Cutietta, Dean of the USC Thornton School of Music.

    The SPLC considers two Washington, DC-based organizations that the Flora L. Thornton Foundation has gifted money to off-and-on since 2009 – FAIR and CIS—to be an “extremist hate-groups.”

    Laney Thornton, current chairman of the Flora L. Thornton Foundation, reached out to L.A. Taco after learning that we were working on a story through Rob Cutietta, Dean of the USC Thornton School of Music. “We consider ourselves to be pro-immigrant and are very concerned to learn that the SPLC labeled one of our grantees, Center for Immigration Studies, as ‘extremist,’” the son of the late Flora Laney Thornton said in an August 20 email. “We try to focus on grantees who we hope can rise above the partisan fray to champion thoughtful and inclusive solutions to help our country and the planet.”

    Regarding immigration, Laney Thornton said: “It built this country, and we want it [to] be a positive driver to our economy and our social fabric in the future. Thank you for bringing the SPL’s research to our attention - we are going to look into this immediately.”

    Both groups flagged by the SPLC were co-founded by John Tanton, a former Petoskey, Michigan based ophthalmologist characterized by the SPLC as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigration movement.” Tanton co-founded a trio of organizations that the SPLC describes as “the three faces of intolerance” – FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA. 

    Tanton was a life-long nature lover who spent most of his adult life in a predominately White suburb near Lake Michigan. During the 1960s, Tanton shifted his focus from land conservancy to immigration reform. In 1975 he joined Zero Population (currently known as Population Connection) and became its national president. During the early 1980s, Tanton fronted a campaign to have English be the United States’ official language and end bilingual education. During his lifetime, Tanton founded over half a dozen organizations that advocated for an end to illegal immigration and a ceiling on legal immigration.

    Tanton’s White nationalist views are included in the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. For decades, the papers show that “Tanton corresponded with Holocaust deniers, formers Klan lawyers and leading White nationalist thinkers of the era...”

    Tanton’s White nationalist views are included in the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. For decades, the papers show that “Tanton corresponded with Holocaust deniers, formers Klan lawyers and leading White nationalist thinkers of the era,” according to the SPLC.  Tanton also ran a publishing company, The Social Contract Press, that regularly published writers associated with White nationalism. 

    In 1986, Tanton wrote, “In California of 2030, the non-Hispanic Whites and Asians will own the property, have the good jobs and education, speak one language and be mostly Protestant and ‘other.’ The Blacks and Hispanics will have the poor jobs, will lack education, own little property, speak another language and will be mainly catholic. Will there be strength in this diversity? Or will this prove a social and political San Andreas Fault?” 

    “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?” Tanton concluded in the private memo. “Or will there be an explosion?”

    FAIR has accepted money from the Pioneer Fund; another organization labeled an “extremist hate-group” by the SPLC that has funded eugenics research. And according to IRS tax records, CIS has received millions of dollars in funding from the ColCom Foundation. This non-profit has donated tens of millions of dollars to anti-immigration organizations.

    In 2017, Mark Krikorian, executive director of CIS, responded to the SPLC’s claims in an op-ed published by the Washington Post, “The wickedness of the SPLC’s blacklist lies in the fact that it conflates groups that really do preach hatred, such as the Ku Klux Klan and Nation of Islam, with ones that simply do not share the SPLC’s political preferences.” Krikorian claimed that Tanton’s involvement in the organization was limited to Tanton helping the foundation secure a grant. Krikorian also said that CIS was central to the immigration debate, citing testimony from Vernon M. Briggs on immigration’s impact on the African American community (“No issue has affected the economic well-being of African Americans more than the phenomenon of immigration and its related policy manifestations,” Briggs wrote.) As well as a report on ICE contributing to the “success of criminal gang suppression.”

    Flora Laney Thornton

    It was 1983 when Flora Laney Thornton, a Kansas City native who grew up in Fort-Worth Texas and briefly dabbled in theater, began her “second career” as a philanthropist, according to a 1998 L.A. Times profile. Thornton launched her foundation two years after her husband Charles “Tex” Thornton—a WWII Air Force Colonel and co-founder of Litton Industries (a large defense contractor)—passed away. 

    As a philanthropist, Thornton became a fixture of the Los Angeles art scene and a significant donor to some of L.A.’s most well regarded educational, medical, and art institutions. “Flora forever changed the artistic landscape of Los Angeles,” USC Thornton Music of School’s dean, Robert Cutietta, said after Thornton died in 2010.

    “She believed that education—whether it is focused on music, medicine or literacy—has the power to transform lives,” former USC President, the late Steven B. Sample said after Thornton’s death.

    Today USC is considered one of the world’s leading private research universities, but during the 1990s, the university was still rebuilding its image. In 1999, USC renamed their music school in Thornton’s honor after Thornton donated $25 million to the USC School of Music—at the time, it was the largest private donation to a school of music in the United States. In 2005, she donated an additional $5 million to USC to fund a music building. And for decades, the Flora L. Thornton Foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in general support to USC Thornton School of Music in addition to providing funding for the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Keck School of Medicine of USC. As recently as 2017-2018, the Flora Thornton Foundation donated over $65,000 in general support funding to the USC Thornton School of Music.

    L.A. Taco reached out to nine L.A. based organizations that the Flora L. Thornton Foundation has donated money to between 2000 and 2018. Five of those organizations got back to us. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Autry Museum, The L.A. Natural History Museum, and the L.A. Zoo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

    IRS tax records from 2000 through 2018 show that the Flora L. Thornton Foundation began donating money to anti-immigration organizations starting in the fiscal year 2005-2006. During this period, the foundation donated $10,000 to Population Connection, a non-profit formerly known as Zero Population Group, founded in 1968 to “raise public awareness of the link between population growth and environmental degradation.”

    (L.A. Taco was unable to review tax records before the year 2000.)

    Between 2000 and 2018, The L.A. based foundation donated over $30 million to dozens of nonprofits. Over $160,000 went to six organizations associated with population control: the Federation For American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Californians For Population Stabilization, Center For Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, Population Connection, and Progressives for Immigration.

    L.A. Taco reached out to nine L.A. based organizations that the Flora L. Thornton Foundation has donated money to between 2000 and 2018. Five of those organizations got back to us. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Autry Museum, The L.A. Natural History Museum, and the L.A. Zoo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

    Lauren Bartlett, Senior Director of Communications at USC, told L.A. Taco that the university has continued to receive gifts from the Flora L. Thornton Foundation since 2018 but “has no proposals for future funding” and “has no current plans to submit any.”

    According to USC’s “gift acceptance policy,” the university does their best to accept donations but will reject a gift if it violates the terms of their policy or if the gift is for purposes that do not further the university’s mission and/or could damage the reputation of the university.

    “...UCLA has accepted funding from the foundation for purposes consistent with these priorities. The foundation’s other grant-making will not impact our priorities or our commitment to equity and inclusion.”

    The policy states: “If a gift falls into one of the above categories, the dean or development officer working on the gift must notify the Senior Vice President for University Advancement, who will make the final decision as to whether to accept it.”

    LA Phil told L.A. Taco that they’re no longer accepting money from the Flora L. Thornton Foundation and don’t plan to in the future. During the fiscal year of 2017 - 2018, the Flora L. Thornton Foundation donated $50,000 to LA Phil. Since the year 2000, the foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the internationally renowned orchestra.

    pic.twitter.com/KBUdvVxu8H

    — LA Phil (@LAPhil) June 1, 2020

    https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

    Bill Kisliuk, Director of Media Relations for UCLA Strategic Communications, said in a statement to L.A. Taco, “The Flora L. Thornton Foundation’s stated charitable interests include higher education, the arts, and health-related causes. UCLA has accepted funding from the foundation for purposes consistent with these priorities. The foundation’s other grant-making will not impact our priorities or our commitment to equity and inclusion.” Kisliuk added, “UCLA values and respects immigrants and is committed to ensuring a safe and supportive environment for all members of our campus community, including immigrants and undocumented Bruins.” The UCLA Foundation received over $30,000 from the Flora L. Thornton Foundation in 2018 and tens of thousands of dollars in general support donations over the past two decades.

    LA Opera, the 4th largest opera in the country, has accepted millions of dollars from Flora Laney Thornton and the organization set up in her name since it was founded until her passing. Thornton joined LA Opera’s board in 1989 and helped establish a youth program in 2005 with a multimillion-dollar donation. Diane Bergman, a spokesperson for LA Opera, told L.A. Taco, [Flora Laney Thornton’s] principal passion was to fund an apprentice program for young, up-and-coming singers.” Bergman said that the Flora L. Thornton Foundation continued to donate money to LA Opera up until last year “when the company received notice that the foundation’s funding priorities had changed.” Tax records show that the Flora L. Thornton Foundation began donating money to Population Connection during the fiscal year of 2004-2005. In an email, Bergman said LA Opera reviews the sources of “all gifts on a case by case basis.”

    According to Bergman, LA Opera’s “goal is to build bridges between people and cultures, thereby fighting bigotry, xenophobia, or other forms of discrimination.”

    Laney Thornton sent L.A. Taco an 800-word response addressing the foundation's position on immigration and the organizations listed as hate groups by the SPLC but did not answer our questions directly.

    Leah Price, communications director with the Los Angeles Library Foundation, said that the foundation's relationship with Flora Laney Thornton started before Thornton launched her non-profit. “The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, which is a separate organization from the Los Angeles Public Library, wants to be clear that we have no tolerance for bigotry or discrimination of any kind,” Price said in an email to L.A. Taco. “Los Angeles is a city of immigrants, and the funding we secure from individuals and organizations, benefits our multicultural communities.”

    According to Price, funding from the Flora L. Thornton foundation goes to supporting “the library’s adult literacy program—a program that primarily serves immigrants.”

    After connecting with the Flora L. Thornton Foundation, Price says, “its leadership has reassured us that our organizations share the understanding that immigrants are essential and valued members of our social fabric.” Price told L.A. Taco that the Library Foundation “will continue to provide support for tutoring and educational materials to the hundreds of people who every year learn to read through the various programs.”

    On September 14, after initially declining to answer ten questions from us about funding organizations flagged by the SPLC in the future, the foundations vetting process for grantees, their investment holdings, and other items based on IRS records, Laney Thornton sent L.A. Taco an 800-word response addressing the foundation's position on immigration and the organizations listed as hate groups by the SPLC but did not answer our questions directly. Thornton also sent us 12 pages of “data points” (quotes and links to articles) that he pulled from “a two-week investigation,” and conversations with some of the executive directors of the organizations listed in our report.

    Laney Thornton told L.A.Taco, “I looked at the basis of SPLC’s strong allegations. In every case, I found that such allegations were attributed to ‘guilt by association’ rather than guilt by actually doing something ‘bad.’ For instance, the founder of three of these groups, Dr. John Tanton (deceased), was condemned by SPLC for a few comments that were discovered sprinkled into private letters he had written (often 30 years ago) that were in his voluminous personal archive left for posterity. While unsavory, these comments were made off-handedly, often tongue in cheek, and were not representative of the volume of his personal commentary. But most importantly, these comments were not echoed in anything ever said or done by any of these organizations.”

    Groups like the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigrant Reform undermine the [Los Angeles] ethos. 

    Laney Thornton also noted that the SPLC has wrestled with allegations of racism itself. In 2019, Morris Dees, the co-founder of the SPLC, was abruptly fired after reports surfaced that he mistreated non-White and female staffers. Two weeks later, the organization's president, Richard Cohen, stepped down after 30 years with the SPLC.

    In his email to us, Laney Thornton concluded, “We respect folks who feel that immigration levels should be increased just as we believe that there are compelling environmental and economic reasons that immigration levels should be decreased a bit. Immigration has always been of critical value to America. We believe that immigrants should be supported by all that they contribute to our society. At the same time, we believe our immigration policies should be tweaked for maximum sustainability so they can endure into the future.”

    For many Angelenos, the organizations identified by the SPLC stand in direct conflict with the ethos of Los Angeles. L.A. County—the largest county in the country—is home to over 3 million immigrants and has a long history of embracing people from other countries. Groups like the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigrant Reform undermine that ethos. 

    They’ve repeatedly called for the president to terminate the DACA program. 

    By contrast, the City of Los Angeles and L.A. County Board of Supervisors fought to continue DACA. UCLA was one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration for unlawfully repealing DACA in 2017. More recently, USC filed an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit challenging ICE’s international student restrictions tied to COVID-19. According to an April 2020 study, there are over 90,000 undocumented students enrolled in California’s universities.  

    What would happen to the city and all of our beloved institutions if DACA was suddenly repealed or if our immigrant students suddenly couldn’t enroll in our schools or participate in our arts.

    It wouldn’t be Los Angeles. 

    Correction: (An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that John Tanton was a Center For Immigration Studies (CIS) board member up until his death, according to the SPLC. Tanton was reportedly listed as a board member of Federation For American Immigration Reform (FAIR) as recently as 2010. He was listed on FAIR's national board of advisers up until his death in July 2019, according to the SPLC.)

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