At the end of July, The New York Times published a report about the latest Department of Justice investigation. The report read like a work of satire: Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be looking into racial discrimination toward white college applicants as a result of affirmative action policies. According to the internal document obtained by the Times, the DOJ’s civil rights division is seeking lawyers interested in working on a project involving litigation related to race-based discrimination in college admissions.
The report comes roughly one year after Fisher v. University of Texas Austin, the landmark case that upheld the right of universities to consider race, ethnicity and cultural background in college decisions. The Supreme Court ruling additionally noted that race, contrary to widespread anti-affirmative action propaganda, is not a deciding factor in admissions.
The DOJ’s latest attempt to portray white students with subpar grades as martyrs of a diversity-driven American education system is frustrating and outright degrading to students of color by suggesting their achievements are a sham. But at a time when cries of “reverse racism” are becoming increasingly prevalent, it’s unsurprising.
Affirmative action is a complicated topic; it’s not meant to be a cure-all solution to systemic racism and economic inequity in the American education system, and frankly, it isn’t. The shortcomings of our national education system in addressing race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class and a host of other identity-based issues are barely touched upon by affirmative action.
Nonetheless, affirmative action is, if not perfect, necessary. In the absence of policies that allow educational institutions to consider and correct structural and intergenerational inequity, these institutions will almost certainly increase this inequity by allowing it to continue. Contrary to what the Department of Justice seems to believe, ignoring systemic inequity may be “equality” — but it certainly isn’t equity.
Inequity, a lack of diversity perpetuated by an inability to recognize inequality, benefits no one — not the low-income minority students who grew up with fewer opportunities than their white counterparts, and certainly not the white students who will be denied the deeply enriching experience of learning and working in diverse settings.
Notably, the DOJ’s efforts to curb this so-called discrimination also loops in a racial minority: Asian Americans. Shedding light on a 2015 complaint against Harvard University about race-based rejection voiced by a large coalition of Asian Americans, the DOJ now has a new, more diverse face for its agenda — one that points as if to say, “Look, this investigation is about everyone.” But the idea that some Asian American students may be denied admission to a university for no other reason than their race is, in the grand scope of the 2016 election and the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency, clearly not a priority for this administration. Any pretense otherwise is an affront to the vast and multicultural American student body.
Of course, Asian Americans experience significant privileges unique to their race. But they are excluded from Trump’s narrative of perceived white oppression, and the DOJ’s motivation is exactly that — not some spontaneous call to action for ubiquitous social justice. It’s a tactic as transparent as it is manipulative: It’s one of the most American pursuits to fight for equal opportunity and education for all. But to support Asian American students in their academic endeavors is fundamentally different from tearing down a system that has tried to leverage equal footing in education for minority students across the nation for decades.
“Colorblindness” is a game only the privileged can play: Young black boys who misbehave in the same way their white peers do face graver disciplinary actions in their schools as children. They grow up to be statistically far more likely to be singled out by police. It’s impossible for them to ignore the color of their skin. Similarly, Asian-American students who suffer from anxiety and other mental health disorders at higher than average rates, largely as a result of being held to standards dictated by the “model minority” stereotype can’t be “colorblind” either. And ultimately, the same could be said for every group except white people.
At the heart of opposition to affirmative action is a sense of frustration toward universities for refusing to overlook the past — a past in which people bought and sold other human beings because of the color of their skin, a past strained with segregation, lynchings and systemic, race-based denial of meaningful opportunity. Institutions of higher learning will not ignore a present colored with targeted police brutality and intergenerational poverty. In this very real past and present, white students are not the victims but the beneficiaries of inequality. Through generations of enjoying implicit and, at times overt, advantages, the pursuit of equity has become misinterpreted by white affirmative action opponents as oppression.
At the end of the day, as for white people being denied opportunity for being white, Jeff Sessions need not look further than President Donald Trump’s cabinet — stocked with more white males than that of any other U.S. president since Ronald Reagan — for some stark evidence to the contrary.
For its own part, USC has vocally supported affirmative action for years, and boasts an impressively diverse student body. The University has its work cut out for it in terms of meeting the unique needs of this student body, but at the very least its admissions panel is able to recognize that white students are not victims of discrimination.