The Justice Department apparently wants to revisit the perennial issue of affirmative action in university and college admissions — remarkable news for many reasons, not the least of which is: President Donald Trump was the first Republican since the civil rights revolution to reach the White House without campaigning against “quotas.”
Trump went out of his way to inflame racial and ethnic sore spots — but not this one.
“Affirmative action: Should we keep it? Yes or no?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Trump on the Aug. 16, 2015, edition of “Meet the Press.”
“I’m fine with affirmative action,” Trump replied. “We’ve lived with it for a long time.”
On “Fox News Sunday” two months later, Chris Wallace asked Trump how that reply squared with conservative doctrine.
“You know, it has served its place, and it served its time,” he equivocated. “Some people have loved it, and some people don’t like it at all.” Though still “fine with” affirmative action personally, Trump allowed it “would be a wonderful thing” if its necessity someday faded.
When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia commented, during December 2015 oral arguments on race-conscious university admissions, that some African-Americans might be better off at “less-advanced schools,” Trump joined those denouncing the conservative icon. “Very tough to the African-American community,” he scolded.
If Trump’s intuition told him that voters generally, and whites specifically, aren’t that riled up about “reverse discrimination” in higher education anymore, his intuition was probably right.
In heavily populated California, Florida and Michigan, race-conscious admissions in state universities have been banned for years. More than a quarter of the U.S. population lives in the eight states with no affirmative action in public higher education.
Trump’s core constituency is the white working class — usually defined as those without a college degree. And it’s far from clear that blacks getting into college ahead of whites ranks at, or even near, the top of this group’s grievances.
To be sure, some 52 percent of white working-class voters believe discrimination against whites is as bad as, or worse than, discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities, according to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Yet, 54 percent of them think investing in a college education is “a gamble,” suggesting admission is not the prize they eye. And 56 percent disagree that “efforts to increase diversity almost always come at the expense of whites.”
Furthermore, the belief that whites are victims of discrimination did not statistically predict support for Trump in 2016, according to the Public Religion Research Institute survey; deporting illegal immigrants and general fear of “cultural displacement” did.
There’s little evidence that the broader U.S. public wants more higher-ed affirmative-action wars of the kind that equivocal but supportive Supreme Court decisions have tried to defuse — including the June 2016 4-to-3 ruling in favor of the University of Texas program that so exercised Scalia.
Significantly, Trump, then the presumptive Republican nominee, had no comment on that ruling, pro or con.
Americans are ambivalent about this genuinely difficult issue, with 70 percent of the public telling Gallup last year that only “merit” should affect college admissions and 63 percent telling the Pew Research Center in 2014 that it’s “a good thing” for colleges to have programs designed to boost minority enrollment.
Candidate Trump’s views on affirmative action channeled those contradictions. He was indeed not far from restating, crudely, the pragmatic position Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed on behalf of the Supreme Court majority in a 2003 case that upheld race- conscious admissions to assure diversity on campus.
“Governmental use of race must have a logical end point. … We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today,” she wrote.
Late Wednesday, a Justice Department spokeswoman denied there’s a broad attack on race-conscious admissions brewing, just a review of a complaint against Harvard University filed by Asian-Americans who believe that school’s efforts to ensure “diversity” in admissions result in a de facto cap on their admissions.
Of course, that would hardly diminish the potential impact, because similar issues are being raised by Asian-American plaintiffs in lawsuits, backed by conservative activists, against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Those cases could undo the settlement O’Connor established, or tried to, apropos cases brought by white plaintiffs.
With 11 years left before O’Connor’s target date, someone at the Justice Department seems drawn to an old conservative crusade in which the president himself has heretofore shown little interest. Whoever that is must really believe in the cause because the political upside is not necessarily that big — as Trump, of all people, has demonstrated.
Charles Lane is a Washington Post columnist.