Terry H. Schwadron
Aug 3, 2017
Once again, we have a Trump administration solution to something that is not a Big Problem, with a solution that appears on its face to be aiming for further racial division, not racial healing. The battleground this time — using the federal courts to attack affirmative action programs used for college admissions.
A memo obtained by The New York Times outlines a program to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division to investigating and bringing lawsuits against universities that DOJ feels are discriminating against white applicants in favor of a more diverse population. Actually, it is an internal call for lawyers to sign up for the fight for discrimination against white people.
Let’s skip the fact that federal courts up to the Supreme Court have ruled to allow race to be used among many factors in choosing a student body. And we can overlook that while there undoubtedly are individual cases in which student A had better test scores, say, than Student B, on the whole, we are looking to education, higher education in this case, to be more of a great equalizer in race.
There are no details about this memo, other than the idea that it will be enforced by a group of appointees, not the DOJ professionals who pursue legal problems in the education area. It is not a difficult conclusion to reach, then, that this is another in a string of more ideological than practical, problem-solving policies.
Among all other aspects here, this is exactly the kind of policy that draws conservative support across the country for Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who remains on shaky status with the President over his mandated recusal from oversight of all-things-Russia and the Trump campaign. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Donald Trump speak about affirmative action programs, so it seems that the anti-affirmative action push would be the type of change that Sessions would be initiating.
As the Times reported, “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.”
Look, we are at a point in our history when we need to extend the American college experience to more people, not further restrict participation. We are at a point at which the resources required to support college students without leaving them with a lifetime of debt is a major problem We are moving further and further into a technologically driven economy in which jobs and careers will require more college-level education.
That’s the problem we should be identifying.
Instead, we are looking backward again, to a time when we lived “white privilege” without using the term. The utter facts nationwide are undeniable. Each university can fill its student body with the best white students with the best test preparation classes and the most supported suburban, white school. An admissions officer at Brown University in Providence whom I once befriended told me that Brown could fill its entire student body from three towns in Long Island, if they didn’t care about including oboe players, lacrosse players, artists, applied mathematicians, diversity of a wide variety. But what you get then is a homogenized, basically “white” view of learning, for a university that would lean this way would also do so in hiring. Critics were quick to note that Mr. Trump himself, Jared Kushner and others have been helped towards admission to college by connections, by donations, by seeking to apply influence — a different kind of affirmative action.
My daughter, Hannah, who teaches critical thinking in Dance, has described to me the intensity of faculty recruitment once a rare vacancy opens at her university over a wide range of issues ranging from nature of training, to the academic v. performance views, to race, background, performance history. It sounds bewildering, and well beyond a statistically based judgment by ideologically driven lawyers in the Department of Justice.
What should make college interesting is the chance to meet people from different backgrounds, countries, upbringings. It is not a vocational school, though a degree also does give entry to some better paying jobs.
That does not even begin to address the societal need here to address and redress two centuries of treating non-white students as second-class. Affirmative action came about for good and plentiful reason. If the call is for a solid middle class in this country that breaks down racial rules, attacking affirmative action sounds ill-aimed.
Devoting public resources towards an educational outcome that serves neither the social good nor the value of diversified learning sounds nuts to me.
Of course, one look at the Trump Cabinet should remind us what you get when you do not take these factors into account. You get a seemingly singular view of what the problems we face are with the values of Money-making and Business as dominant to the thinking we see out of the White House.
This proposal is not alone, of course. There have been a series of conservative-leaning changes by Sessions and Team Trump on voting rights, a voter fraud commission, gay and transgender rights, police reforms and other issues.
One does wonder whether this is another attempt to re-legitimize efforts to bolster the goals of white supremacy again without using the terms.
The Supreme Court rulings have outlined that educational benefits from having a diverse student body can justify using race as one factor among many in a “holistic” evaluation, while rejecting blunt racial quotas.
The Times coverage did note that the DOJ’s civil rights division has been a recurring culture-war battleground as it passed between Democratic and Republican administrations.
Every institution I have been part of has wrestled with diversity efforts in hiring and promotion. While universities on the whole are more diverse than, say, 50 years ago, newsrooms in America, which are still dwindling in size, are finding it more difficult to recruit minorities, as so many social action boards. That doesn’t mean efforts should be overturned, it means that efforts should be redoubled.
We ought to hear this disclosure from the DOJ as a reminder that the easiest way out often is not the right way. We should pick our fights where there are real problems, and we ought to form solutions around what we expect as real goals.