Excerpted from a longer piece by Christine Emba for the Washington Post
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.
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.
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.
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!