The Trump administration is squaring up for its first major legal challenge over affirmative action, as documents obtained by CNN indicate.
The news network, which shared copies of the documents on its site, confirms that the Department of Justice is actively investigating Harvard’s use of race in its admissions decisions. The letters, which come from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, have also found the prestigious university to be “out of compliance” with federal law.
The Justice Department is also threatening to sue Harvard if the school doesn’t hand over documents it has asked for by Dec. 1. Harvard has said that it has complied to the best of its ability but cannot compromise confidential and sensitive student records for the sake of the DOJ’s hunt.
The new documents confirm earlier reports that the DOJ was actively investigating complaints lodged against Harvard University by Asian-American applicants who claim that they were denied admissions based on their race. The suit alleges that Harvard uses a quota system—a practice that has been ruled illegal—to keep the number of Asian-American students relatively static year after year.
The conservative legal strategist behind the suit, Edward Blum, has had his sights set on blowing up a series of key civil-rights-era laws. Blum, who is not an attorney, successfully challenged the Voting Rights Act, though he lost last year’s Supreme Court challenge to affirmative action against the University of Texas.
Now it appears that the DOJ wants to take the suit, and the resentment of a handful of Asian and Asian-American college applicants, and dismantle affirmative action as we know it.
Vanita Gupta, who led the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration (before the department felt like some terrible play at irony), told CNN that Donald Trump’s Justice Department “clearly appears to be on the hunt for a case to bring a significant challenge to affirmative action.”
The original suit, as well as the DOJ’s obsession with Harvard’s admissions practices, ignores several important factors. If Asian Americans suffered disproportionately, it would also mean that less worthy white applicants also benefited—a fact that doesn’t square with anti-affirmative-action rhetoric that focuses almost exclusively on black and Latinx students.
Asians and Asian Americans are also disproportionately represented in Harvard’s student body in comparison with their national numbers: Harvard’s Class of 2021 is 22.2 percent Asian and Asian American—the highest percentage ever for that group (African Americans make up 14.6 percent), according to the Mercury News. Asians make up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population.
More important, buying into the belief that Asian-American students disproportionately suffer because of their race implies that admissions applications between students are one-to-one comparisons. Simply switch an applicant’s race, and suddenly the result changes! That view ignores how complex the admissions process has become, hinging on a variety of scores, qualifications, requirements and factors.
Last year’s Supreme Court decision alluded to this in the high court’s defense of allowing race to factor into admissions decisions; it is but one of many qualities that colleges take into consideration when reviewing which students would be the best fit for their school.
A recent report from The Atlantic highlighted this complexity. The city or town from which a student hails, his or her record of service, and whether the candidate is a first-generation college student or descends from a legacy of alumni all contribute to admissions decisions, yet there is little to no legal hand-wringing about how these factors come into play.
It’s also important to note that recent studies indicate that Asians Americans, as a whole, have benefited from and support affirmative action programs. This isn’t about protecting a certain group of students—it’s about using Asians as a cover to resurrect a white supremacist policy.
As this excellent NPR piece points out, white Americans have long used this myth of the “model minority” as a wedge to keep Asians and other people of color from seeking broader alignment and cooperation.
As these documents indicate, the DOJ is ready to turn this wedge into a hammer.
Read more at CNN.