Justice Dept. to Take On Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Charlie Savage, New York Times, August 1, 2017

The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times.

The document, an internal announcement to the civil rights division, seeks current lawyers interested in working for a new project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

The announcement suggests that the project will be run out of the division’s front office, where the Trump administration’s political appointees work, rather than its Educational Opportunities Section, which is run by career civil servants and normally handles work involving schools and universities.

The document does not explicitly identify whom the Justice Department considers at risk of discrimination because of affirmative action admissions policies. But the phrasing it uses, “intentional race-based discrimination,” cuts to the heart of programs designed to bring more minority students to university campuses.

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The project is another sign that the civil rights division is taking on a conservative tilt under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It follows other changes in Justice Department policy on voting rights, gay rights and police reforms.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Credit Image: © Yuri Gripas/Reuters via ZUMA Press)

Roger Clegg, a former top official in the civil rights division during the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration who is now the president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, called the project a “welcome” and “long overdue” development as the United States becomes increasingly multiracial.

“The civil rights laws were deliberately written to protect everyone from discrimination, and it is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian-Americans are as well,” he said.

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The Justice Department declined to provide more details about its plans or to make the acting head of the civil rights division, John Gore, available for an interview.

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The Supreme Court has ruled that the educational benefits that flow from having a diverse student body can justify using race as one factor among many in a “holistic” evaluation, while rejecting blunt racial quotas or race-based point systems. But what that permits in actual practice by universities — public ones as well as private ones that receive federal funding — is often murky.

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The Supreme Court most recently addressed affirmative action admissions policies in a 2016 case, voting 4 to 3 to uphold a race-conscious program at the University of Texas at Austin. But there are several pending lawsuits challenging such practices at other high-profile institutions, including Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The Justice Department has not taken a position in those cases.

The pending start of the affirmative action project — division lawyers who want to work on it must submit their résumés by Aug. 9, the announcement said — joins a series of changes involving civil rights law since Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

In a lawsuit challenging Texas’ strict voter identification law, the Justice Department switched its position, dropping the claim that the law was intentionally discriminatory and later declaring that the law had been fixed. Mr. Sessions has also made clear he is not interested in using consent decrees to impose reforms on troubled police departments and has initiated a sweeping review of existing agreements.

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