The Chronicle Review

Trump’s Affirmative-Action Rollback: A Promise Kept

August 03, 2017

Taylor Hill / WireImage / Getty Images
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, was the first senator to endorse Donald Trump for president.

After six months of this administration, nothing shocks anymore — not even the most audacious reversals of progressive priorities.

According to a memo obtained by The New York Times, the Trump Justice Department is starting to make moves to roll back affirmative action, pursuing "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions." In other words, they intend to investigate and sue (yes, sue) colleges that they believe discriminate against white applicants. This initiative, if enacted, will take place alongside other assaults on marginalized communities under the Trump administration. Since his inauguration, the Justice Department has reversed the previous administration’s efforts to uphold voting rights, served as an impediment to police reform, and weighed in against same-sex rights. It’s an agenda breathtaking in its scope.

Even so, it’s not at all surprising. At the core of Trump’s victory in 2016 was a promise: "Make America Great Again." Shocking though the department’s plan may be to people in higher education, it makes sense if you see it as a reward to a constituency that put Trump — and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — in power.

Donald Trump’s electoral triumph arrived in the context of a nation experiencing rapid transformation. Demographically, America will be a "majority-minority" country by 2044. Women are now more visible in public life than ever. Three serve on the Supreme Court. One just ran for president. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. And we had a black president for almost eight years.

Many Trump supporters believe themselves to be losing their country, something that leads them to prefer a social milieu more consistent with days gone by — one in which primarily white, middle- and upper-class, heterosexual, native-born men reigned supreme.

It isn’t the first time America has witnessed something like this. Rapid social change spurred the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the John Birch Society in the 1960s. The Tea Party movement formed in reaction to the election of the first black president. It’s no different with Trump’s base. A sense of cultural — even existential — threat fueled his campaign. As one study, by the political scientist John Sides, concluded, "Attitudes about immigration, feelings toward black people, and feelings toward Muslims became more strongly related to voter decision making in 2016 compared to 2012." The America that Trump voters had come to know and love is disappearing.

Public opinion supports affirmative action, it's settled law, and it's good for society. Still, for Trump and Sessions, a promise is a promise.
Trump knows this — and knows how to exploit this anxiety. Indeed, it’s the simplest explanation for his attack on affirmative action. On its face, it doesn’t make sense for his administration to take on this fight. According to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, almost two-thirds of the public agrees that affirmative action in education is a "good thing." Moreover, in 2016, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Supreme Court ruled that for the sake of diversity, race can be one of many criteria used by a college as part of a more holistic means of evaluating applicants.

The argument over diversity has been largely won, Most would agree that it’s a good thing. In addition to doing away with debilitating stereotypes, a more diverse society permits us to arrive at better solutions to the vexing problems we face.

In sum, public opinion supports affirmative action, it’s settled law, and it’s good for society. Still, for Trump and Sessions, a promise is a promise. Trump told his voters he would "Make America Great Again" — and so here we are.

The past few weeks haven’t been kind to President Trump. His approval numbers have hit new lows. He’s even losing the confidence of fellow Republicans, several of whom are beginning to challenge him. Congress, in Republican hands, defied his wishes on health care and on sanctions against Russia. If he hopes to regain the support, if not the confidence, of his party, he must continue to rally the base — and this affirmative-action plan might just do the trick.

The Justice Department’s move, along with all the other rollbacks of civil rights we’ve witnessed, makes it all but impossible to deny the continuing currency of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the United States. It’s there for all to see.

This could be a good thing: It forces us to reckon with who we really are. Is America really about the democratic, progressive values professed in the founding documents? Or are we really the small-minded, bigoted America we’ve seen these past six months? Only time will tell.

Christopher Sebastian Parker is a professor of political science at the University of Washington. He is the co-author, with Matt A. Barreto, of Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America (Princeton University Press, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter at @blackbruin.