Yesterday, the New York Times obtained documents indicating that the Trump administration is working to “redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” In the midst of almost too many domestic scandals and legal investigations to count, unceasing staff shakeups that one would imagine to have brought White House operations almost to a standstill, and various international crises requiring the White House’s comment or reaction, the administration has its sights set on making sure the Abigail Fishers of the world face as few obstacles as possible between them and not showing up to their 8 am composition seminar.
There hasn’t been an official announcement of this initiative; what we do have is an internal communication asking for lawyers to volunteer for a project related to “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” It’s not entirely clear yet what this initiative will look like, although we seem set to find out relatively soon — applicants are supposed to submit their résumés by August 9th — but given the Justice Department’s enthusiasm for dropping or reversing positions held by the Obama administration in regards to cases involving discrimination, it isn’t likely to be good. It’s especially concerning alongside the fact that as part of the sweeping cuts the Trump administration has proposed from its outset, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights was meant to see major staffing cuts. From the New York Times:
In a lawsuit challenging Texas’ strict voter identification law, the Justice Department switched its position, dropping the claim that the law was intentionally discriminatory and later declaring that the law had been fixed. Mr. Sessions has also made clear he is not interested in using consent decrees to impose reforms on troubled police departments and has initiated a sweeping review of existing agreements. Last week, the Justice Department, without being asked, filed a brief in a private employment discrimination lawsuit. It urged an appeals court not to interpret the ban on sex-based discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as covering sexual orientation.
Of course, the “problem” of discrimination against white students applying to universities that this project claims to attempt to address does not exist. In fact, white women are the group who has benefited most from affirmative action policies as a whole. Even if they weren’t, the fact of the matter is that white people can’t be disadvantaged by a system of higher education that was designed by and for them — a system which was only recently in American history forced to consider people of color as potential members of its academic and cultural community at all and still rarely reflects or serves them in a meaningful way in terms of curriculum. Unfortunately, as is generally the case, these facts don’t matter; neither the Abigail Fishers of the world nor the Trump administration can or will be swayed by facts about the structural realities of the US’s past and present.
This initiative isn’t based in a misunderstanding of the facts, but an attempt to recreate them; not being duped by a narrative about what white people are entitled to, but cheerfully shaping it. The strategy of a fearmongering far right in the US (and in a broader historical sense, the strategy of white supremacy) has long been to suggest the existence of terrifying problems that they can then be relied upon to solve. The Trump administration is taking up this ancient tradition with bureaucracy and tax dollars; in lieu of doing any of the work of governing our fractured and fraught nation, it can continue creating offices and departments to address the imaginary concerns of frightened white people.
Much like the office of “Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE,” — again created to publicly oppose a problem that it again feels deeply absurd to have to point out obviously does not exist — this move is an attempt to cash a fake check to Trump’s voters. Trump can’t bring back jobs because the jobs don’t exist anymore; he can’t build his wall because he never had a plan for it in the first place; he can’t lock up Hillary Clinton; he can’t put together even a marginally workable idea for what healthcare should look like. All he can do for them is create imaginary solutions to the imaginary problems he reassured them really existed.
Unfortunately, the extensive reverse-racism LARPing that the Trump administration is doing may well have real consequences for real people, despite its basis in total fallacy. Although the Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action program at University of Texas last year, there are several more pending lawsuits against other universities for similar programs, and it’s entirely possible that Trump’s Justice Department will issue guidance or otherwise weigh in on them. It’s hard to say what exactly this new civil rights department project could potentially accomplish; even if they never manage to do more than write memos, however, the Trump administration has been looking to cut funding to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Department since the inauguration.
Any of the limited resources being spent on this project are being taken away from actual civil rights work, to the extent that there was any chance of it being accomplished under this administration in the first place.