By Christine Emba
The 200th day of Donald Trump’s presidency draws near, and his legislative failures have become all too apparent. What better time to change the conversation and re-energize the base? And what better way than by raising the lightning rod that is affirmative action?
According to a memo leaked to the New York Times, the Trump administration is planning to redirect Justice Department resources to investigate and potentially sue colleges that use “intentional race-based discrimination” in admissions. The project was quickly understood to be targeting affirmative action policies that many on the right see as “discriminating” against white applicants — in particular, ones that might give black and Latino students an edge. This move comes despite the Supreme Court upholding the use of affirmative action to diversify campuses just last year.
Justice Department officials attempted to play down the initiative after the story broke, stating that they planned to investigate a single complaint involving Asian American applicants, not whites. But it barely mattered. The message was sent.
Affirmative action is a consistent hobbyhorse on the right because it combines real anxieties with compelling falsehoods. College admission — especially to the elite institutions most often hit with affirmative action lawsuits — has become more selective and is an increasingly important factor in the creation and perpetuation of wealth and opportunity. Elite colleges serve as steppingstones into politics, finance, law and Silicon Valley; higher incomes tend to follow. Even so, 80 percent of top students who apply are accepted into at least one elite school, if not their No. 1 choice. But measures that help historically disadvantaged populations to take advantage of the same opportunity are nonetheless characterized as zero-sum.
What is essential to understand is that it’s not a vast crowd of black or brown people keeping white Americans out of the colleges of their choice, especially not the working-class white Americans among whom Trump finds his base of support. In fact, income tips the scale much more than race: At 38 top colleges in the United States, more students come from the top 1 percent of income earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Really leveling the admissions playing field, assuming the Trump administration actually cares about doing so, would involve much broader efforts to redistribute wealth and power. A focus on fringe campaigns against affirmative action suggests it does not.
Addressing inequalities in K-12 education, for instance, could help at-risk students of all races increase their chances of attending a top college — or any college at all. Policies such as property-tax-based funding for schools and the curiously slanted allocation of talented teachers (in Louisiana, for instance, a student in the poorest quartile of schools is almost three times as likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher as a student in the wealthiest quartile is) give a tremendous boost in college admissions to children from high-income families, often at the expense of their lower-income peers.
And right up to the application-writing doorstep, the beneficiaries of the biggest extra edge in admissions are more often than not the children of alumni. At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is between two and three times higher than the general admissions rate. Pressing universities to drop legacy preferences, following the example of other elite schools such as the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, could free up spots for those without that built-in advantage. Trump’s own wealthy-parent-sponsored education at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by the subsequent admission of three of his four adult children, makes that particular initiative seem unlikely.
In many ways, the Trump Justice Department’s proposed attack on affirmative action is a microcosm of how the president won the 2016 election and continues to maintain a base of support. First, Trump taps into a mainstream concern, one tied to how America’s economic system is changing and how some individuals are left at the margin: Employment? Immigration? College? Take your pick. Then, instead of addressing the issue in a way that embraces both its complexity and well-established research, officials opt for simplistic talking points known to inflame an already agitated base: Immigrants are sneaking into the country and stealing your jobs! Minorities are pushing you out of college!
The Trump administration assumes that picking race-focused fights is the most successful way to distract from its failures and to pander to a grievance-inspired base. The level of support for this latest attempt may prove it right.
[Christine Emba is the editor of In Theory, and writes about ideas for The Washington Post’s Opinions section. Follow @christineemba]