Trump Presents Democrats an Opportunity on Affirmative Action

Trump hopes his latest move will help launch another round of the culture wars, but he’s exposed his flank.

Another day, another headline in The New York Times, another primal scream from the liberal Twitterati. As the progenitor of many of the neuroses and ironies exploding in our faces today once said, “It’s morning in America again.”

“Justice Dept. to Take On Affirmative Action in College Admissions,” reads the headline and the news, from Charlie Savage, is pretty straightforward: the Trump administration is seeking lawyers to direct a Justice Department investigation into colleges using affirmative action to discriminate against—c’mon, if you don’t know where this heading, then you don’t know Attorney General Jeff Sessions—whites.

In typical fashion for this administration, how this brave new investigation will be pursued is more show than substance, but a show that nonetheless could have consequences for higher education. The position “will be run out of the [civil rights] 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 EOS was established with the explicit responsibility of enforcing “Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion in public schools and institutions of higher learning” and targeting “state-sponsored segregation” in education. In other words, EOS, by law, wouldn’t be hospitable to a mission based on the disturbingly widespread notion that whites are the real oppressed minority.

The former leader of the civil rights division under Obama told the Times the obvious takeaway: “The fact that the position is in the political front office, and not in the career section that enforces anti-discrimination laws for education, suggests that this person will be carrying out an agenda aimed at undermining diversity in higher education without needing to say it.”

Savage does well to point out that this isn’t unique to Trumpism; affirmative action and the civil rights division has never been popular with Republicans. And charges of colleges committing so-called “reverse discrimination” has long been a favorite arrow in the GOP’s culture war quiver:

During the administration of George W. Bush, [the civil rights division’s] overseers violated Civil Service hiring laws, an inspector general found, by filling its career ranks with conservatives who often had scant experience in civil rights law. At the same time, it brought fewer cases alleging systematic discrimination against minorities and more alleging reverse discrimination against whites, like a 2006 lawsuit forcing Southern Illinois University to stop reserving certain fellowship programs for women or members of underrepresented racial groups.

I’ll let others delineate the (often toxic) presumptions and anxieties behind “reverse discrimination.” It seems plain to me that none of this is about having an honest conversation about affirmative action. This is merely Trump’s second salvo in less than a week (the first was his “transgender ban” in the military) meant to launch a new round of the so-called Culture Wars ahead of 2018.

But there is an opportunity for a liberal rebuttal that could simultaneously hit Trump back and appeal to some voters who may (unfortunately) perceive some truth in “reverse discrimination” while not betraying a commitment to help disadvantaged groups: class-based affirmative action, something that has been on the Monthly‘s radar for some time.

While data about the efficacy of targeting applicants by their socioeconomic status rather than solely by race remains inconclusively small, some recent experiments in Colorado hold out some promise. As The Atlantic reported in 2013, Colorado University-Boulder created a class-based affirmative-action framework “that would take into account resources available to a child at home and in high school.” The model focused on finding “overachievers,” students that performed better within disadvantaged contexts (e.g. schools with poor funding, large class sizes, few accelerated/honors/AP classes offered, poor parents, etc.) than expected. The results were excellent:

In 2009, Gaertner had admissions officers review 478 applications, first under CU-Boulder’s race-based policy and then under the new class-based policy, with all racial identifiers removed. Officers ended up admitting 9 percent more underrepresented minority students under the race-blind policy than and 20 percent more students of very low socioeconomic status.

In 2010, CU-Boulder ran another experiment, this time on 2,000 applications deemed borderline for admission. Half were evaluated using the new class-plus-race approach, and half using the old approach that used race alone. The hybrid approach resulted in a 13 percent increase in acceptance rates for the poorest students, a 17 percent increase for underrepresented minority students, and a 32 percent increase in the lowest-income, minority students.

Even better, those students overachieving in poor situations have gone on to do well in college, and the school itself has benefited in an important way.

“[An ‘overachiever’s’] college outcomes—that’s grades, credit hours earned, and graduation at four years and six-year graduation rate—is actually higher than typical undergraduates,” Gaertner says of overachievers.

Constructing the new admissions factors has had an additional benefit. “The more we got into this, it actually expanded our view of diversity,” MacLennan says. The admissions team now pays more attention to rural students and students coming from under-resourced high schools.

By framing their attack in explicitly racial terms, the GOP is actually buying into an outdated paradigm that, yes, was created by well-meaning progressives decades ago. By engaging in progressives’ terms, they’ve opened themselves to having the terms of the debate changed. If this becomes a 2018 campaign issue, Democrats should be ready to pounce.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is an associate editor at Washington Monthly.