Why restart the af­fir­ma­tive-ac­tion war?

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Charles Lane

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.

In heav­ily pop­u­lated Cal­i­for­nia, Florida and Michi­gan, race­con­scious 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 ed.

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 (PRRI).

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 PRRI 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 en­sure 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 AsianAmer­i­cans 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 Don­ald Trump, of all peo­ple, has demon­strated. Mac Tully, CEO and Pub­lisher; Justin Mock, Se­nior VP of Fi­nance and CFO; Bill Reynolds, Se­nior VP, Cir­cu­la­tion and Pro­duc­tion; Judi Pat­ter­son, Vice Pres­i­dent, Hu­man Re­sources; Bob Kin­ney , Vice Pres­i­dent, In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy

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