Even after weeks of macho vulgarity, preening and unruly incompetence, this week the Trump administration still managed to send shock waves through the higher education and civil rights communities. The New York Times reported that the White House wants the U.S. Department of Justice to “redirect resources” of its civil rights division “toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Subsequently, the DOJ announced that it was really just seeking “volunteers” interested in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-Americans.
Perhaps this is a move by the White House in concert with Jeff Sessions, playing to the shared political base. Under the guise of protecting the rights of Asian-Americans, this could save the beleaguered attorney general by making him the defender of white people who feel threatened by opportunities given to minorities. But apart from the cynical political opportunism of this move, we can also see the threats against affirmative action as another effort to use higher education to protect those who already have key social advantages.
Ever since the founding of this country, we have recognized that education is indispensable to our vision of a democratic society. All men may be created equal in the abstract, but education provides people concrete opportunities to overcome real circumstances of poverty or oppression. Thomas Jefferson argued that the talented poor should be educated at public expense so that inherited wealth would not doom us to rule by an “unnatural aristocracy” of wealth. A few years after Jefferson’s death, African-American shopkeeper David Walker penned a blistering manifesto pointing out that “the bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors almost to death.” Some years later, the young slave Frederick Douglass received a “new and special revelation,” namely, that learning “unfits” a person for being a slave.
Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans.
Residential colleges and universities have for many years emphasized creating a diverse student body because we believe this results in a deeper educational experience. In the late 1960s, many institutions steered away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people can learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what would later be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who could navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.
Creating a diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from underrepresented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect. Education, as Douglass said, makes you unfit for slavery.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written that the equal protection clause of the Constitution “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals -- here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”
Many citizens, but particularly citizens from racial and ethnic minorities, have often had to depend on the federal government to ensure that states provide access to political and economic opportunity. That’s why it’s particularly appalling to see the Trump administration commandeering the civil rights division of the DOJ to shore up privilege. This latest threat to higher education -- like recent decisions undermining voting rights and plans for a “merit-based” immigration system -- is at its core another attempt by elites, scared “almost to death,” to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.
President Trump has become the leader of what Jefferson called an “unnatural aristocracy,” and perhaps we should not be surprised that it should attempt to increase its privileges. We who work in educational institutions must push back against this attempt, recognizing our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized.
College and university admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. Higher education institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived -- including intellectual diversity -- and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will just return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. We must resist it