The Affirmative-Action Test

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Reuters photo: Shannon Stapleton)
Jeff Sessions’s Department of Justice is showing conservatives that their deal with Trump was not a swindle.

There are so many reasons for liberals to be apoplectic about the Trump administration that one more good reason almost passed unnoticed. In a week when chaos reigns in the West Wing — and stories about a new immigration policy and the president dictating a false account of his son’s meeting with the Russians are in the news — the story about the Department of Justice deciding to investigate and sue universities that use affirmative-action policies to practice “intentional race-based discrimination” was just one more reason for left-wing outrage.

While the coverage it got from the mainstream media largely depicted the DOJ as having fallen into the hands of racists, the louder message was the one heard by conservatives. Though they might have grave doubts about the president’s conduct, veracity, and allegiance to conservative ideas, the “beleaguered” (to quote the president) attorney general Jeff Sessions has just given disgruntled Republicans one more reason to think their efforts to elect Trump were justified.

For liberals, the DOJ’s policy shift is a payoff to white racists who resent any help given to minorities. For those who view everything through a racial lens, any effort to roll back programs that categorize and either advantage or disadvantage Americans solely on the basis of race is sheer bigotry. The effort to use admission to institutions of higher education as a grand experiment to redress America’s racist past is liberal orthodoxy that may not be questioned even if it uses a tactic of racists — de facto racial quotas — to advance a social-justice goal. 

Decades after the civil-rights movement eliminated de jure segregation and discrimination, the focus of groups that purport to work for their cause have eschewed Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a colorblind society in favor of one in which racial preferences are treated as permanent entitlements regardless of their impact on society.

Proponents of affirmative action have long decried the advantages given the rich and the well connected. The current poster child for such practices is presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who stands accused of being admitted to Harvard solely because his family donated millions to the school. It’s true that the scales are generally tipped in favor of the wealthy, but what they leave out of the discussion is that money is colorblind. Wealthy and middle-class African Americans have all the advantages of wealthy whites, yet under affirmative action they are treated the same as truly disadvantaged kids from poverty-stricken inner-city households. Meanwhile, working-class and poor whites, especially those from rural areas, are treated as if they need no help at all.

The pernicious nature of race-based admissions has been especially felt by Asian Americans, who often have high test scores and grades but are pushed aside in favor of others with lower qualifications who are deemed more worthy of help. The result is that more Asian Americans are attending college than ever as their population grows, but their numbers are holding curiously steady at the elite schools where affirmative action is strongest. Much like Jews, who faced strict religious quotas at Ivy League institutions a century ago because those institutions feared there were too many non-WASP over-achieving children of education-obsessed immigrant households getting in, Asian Americans are now subjected to standards that amount to discrimination.

Were affirmative-action efforts rooted in economic disparity and focused on aiding those without wealth or old school ties, there would be little reason to oppose them. But affirmative action is rooted in race and race alone, rather than efforts to correct active discrimination.

Decades after the civil-rights movement eliminated de jure segregation and discrimination, the focus of groups that purport to work for that movement’s cause have eschewed its vision of a colorblind society.

Court rulings have done little to clarify the situation. Race quotas per se have never been sanctioned, but efforts to promote diversity that take race into account as one of many factors are legal. But that confusion has allowed many schools to practice what is, in effect, race quotas that are not called quotas. An effort to end that isn’t bigotry but rather a blow struck for fairness for all Americans, especially those who can rely on neither money nor entitlements in order to have a chance at bettering themselves via higher education.

The willingness of Sessions to use his department to fight this battle is yet another signal to conservatives that Trump’s election has had real consequences on the issues they care about.

Those who wonder why the vast majority of Republicans are still sticking with the president have their answer.

Dysfunction at the White House has led to various departments’ being understaffed because the West Wing has either not vetted candidates for positions or vetoed too many candidates because they were deemed insufficiently Trumpist even if they were conservative Republicans. Equally galling, because of this, in many corners of the government Obama holdovers or career officials with predictably liberal leanings have remained in charge, enforcing policies that Republicans thought Trump would overturn.

But, as with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, Trump’s cabinet has been a source of consolation for conservatives even as they watched the administration stumble from self-inflicted wounds. In this case, Sessions is not only seeking to govern like a conservative; he’s doing so skillfully, by entrusting the task of investigating discriminatory affirmative-action programs to political appointees in the Civil Rights Division rather than to largely left-wing career lawyers who could stall or sabotage the new policy. This speaks to Sessions’s understanding of how to effectively manage a department that, if left to its own devices, would remain an effective tool of the Left.

Trump couldn’t provide the leadership needed to herd the GOP cats into an Obamacare repeal and replace, and he continues to show more interest in pursuing personal obsessions than in actually governing. But Trump’s conservative appointments are a signal that an administration that generally can’t get out of its own way is still doing some things that conservatives, be they Trump fans or Never Trumpers, have always wanted. So long as that is true, those who wonder why the vast majority of Republicans are still sticking with the president have their answer.


Editorial: The DOJ Takes on Campus Discrimination

AG Sessions Takes on Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Campus Racial Preferences, Again

— Jonathan S. Tobin is the opinion editor of and a contributor to National Review Online.


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