Pandering to aggrieved white Trump supporters who think their opportunities are being stolen by people of color because of affirmative action isn't politics – it’s a dangerous threat to democracy.
Every once in awhile (well, okay, pretty much all the time now), a news story comes along that is so enraging, so nakedly terrible and dumb, that all you can really do is say “Are you fucking kidding me?”
This is that story.
Donald Trump’s Department of Justice, headed by untrammeled racist Jeff Sessions, has announced that it will be working to eradicate the extremely thorny and persistent problem of racism in college admissions … against white people. Yes, they’ll be investigating schools where they believe that not enough white students are admitted or are otherwise treated unfairly.
A threshold point here: white people are the dominant group in America and have historically never been the oppressed; only the oppressor. Racism against white people simply isn’t a thing. There’s no such thing as “reverse discrimination” either. What Sessions and Trump are really after here is undercutting decades of affirmative action—also often called “race-conscious” admissions policies—in college and graduate-school admissions, even though such programs are vital, well-regarded, and proven to work.
Broadly speaking, affirmative action programs seek to both rectify past discrimination against African-Americans in particular and to ensure a diversity of students going forward. There are already some pretty significant limitations on what types of affirmative action programs universities can enact: (1) they can’t consider race unless their entire admissions process can withstand strict scrutiny, the strictest form of judicial review that requires that the university prove that their race-based admissions policies are the only way to accomplish the goal of ameliorating past racism and creating a diverse student body; (2) universities can’t use a quota system that relies upon simply admitting some arbitrary percentage of non-white students; (3) the admissions program must be narrowly tailored to accomplish the diversity goals of the university.
Conservatives, of course, have hated affirmative action policies for a long time, but the only mechanism for them to attack those policies has typically been in the courts. Over the last several years, conservatives believed they’d found their dream plaintiff in Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher argued she’d been discriminated against in admissions when she didn’t get accepted, even though she was a fairly mediocre student (3.59 GPA, only 1180 out of 1600 on the old SAT scale, and not in the top 10 percent of her high-school class, which in Texas guarantees automatic admission to UT-Austin). However, the Supreme Court ultimately, across two cases involving Fisher, upheld the University of Texas’s admissions policies because the school had met all the strict criteria required: It was narrowly tailored, the admissions program only considered race as one factor, not the sole determining one, and the goal of creating a cross-cultural diverse student body was important and laudable.
Another key point: the fact that white students don’t actually suffer any discrimination in college admissions. To the extent there are glaring examples of unwarranted favoritism in admissions, they favor rich white people, not people of color (at any income level.) Legacy students—the children of (usually well-off) alumni—are seven times more likely to get admitted to the school their parent(s) attended than a non-legacy applicant. Wealthy parents like Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, can make massive gifts to a school like Harvard to ensure their child gets a place.
Equally important is the fact that everyone likes affirmative action. Well, everyone except racists and mediocre white students who are convinced it is black people, rather than their own average-ness, keeping them from greatness. Social scientists like it because it ultimately creates a more diverse and successful society. Medical schools and physicians’ associations like it because a diversity of doctors is necessary to serve an increasingly diverse society. Businesses like it because, in order to be successful, they need to hire people of different races and backgrounds. Even the military likes it, because racial integration is necessary for a cohesive and effective military force. And finally, under the Obama administration, the government used to like it, because diversity helps the United States better compete in the global economy.
But that was before President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom are deeply committed to advancing the interests of white people at the expense of people of color. Trump’s entire campaign was one long howl about how white people aren’t treated fairly. He wants to stem the flow of Mexican immigrants because he believes they are taking “our” money, “our” jobs, and killing “us.” Prior to running for office, he routinely discriminated against black people in housing and in employment. Sessions has said he thinks the NAACP is anti-American and called black assistant United States Attorney “boy.” In fact, Sessions was so racist he was denied a federal judgeship back in 1986 over it. These are not people interested in ensuring that people of color are treated fairly, in college admissions processes or otherwise.
But, since the courts have held that certain types of affirmative action policies are permissible, they can’t go after some of those policies in the courts as such. So, they’ll go after them at the administrative level. First, they’re going to treat what they consider discrimination against white students as a civil rights, not educational opportunity, issue. What this means is that investigations won’t be conducted by career employees in the Department of Education who have the skills to assess these programs and aren’t affiliated with a political party. Instead, they’ll be conducted by political appointees beholden to Sessions and Trump. Next, while they can’t necessarily force colleges to eradicate their affirmative action policies, they can make it very difficult for them to continue to deploy those policies by tying up schools in years-long investigations of allegations of racism against white students. Smaller colleges in particular may be unable to resist the might and money behind the DOJ and simply drop their affirmative action policies rather than continue to fight.
Pandering to aggrieved white people is completely on brand for Trump—those are the people that showed up at his rallies and that put him in office. They’re convinced that success in America—be it in employment or college admissions—is a zero-sum game: if people of color are succeeding, it means white people aren’t. But that is simply not true. Schools are better (even for white students!) when they are diverse. Diversity fosters innovation in business. Diversity breeds success across the board. But racists like Trump, Sessions, and their ilk aren’t interested in that. They’re interested in ensuring that white people keep a lock on all institutions: political, educational, the job market, and more. And now they’ve got a bully pulpit to enforce that racism. Schools are going to have to stand very strong to push back against this, keeping in mind that the Supreme Court has already approved certain types of affirmative action policies. It’s going to be a tough few (hopefully few) years.
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