The war on the southern border, the Muslim ban, and mass detention of immigrants—President Trump seems determined to claw America back into the nation’s racist past one executive order at a time. In its crusade against educational equity, the Justice Department has emerged as the White House’s stealth weapon against civil rights. It is now moving quietly to dismantle the policy of affirmative action: Supposedly aiming to combat “reverse racism,” the administration has rescinded key Obama-era policy guidance that upheld the principle of encouraging diversity in K-12 and higher education. Although the removal of this guidance does not alter past court precedents or repeal any laws directly, veteran civil-rights advocates are wary that, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the administration has been moving steadily to work “separate but equal” back into the nation’s classrooms.
Dennis Park, head of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, described the move as an attempt to “reverse the progress achieved over the more than half century since Brown v. [Board] of Education.” But he added that the law would ultimately “be determined by the Supreme Court and not an Administration which seems bent on promoting division.”
The problem is that “separate but equal” persists in our public schools, if not in the letter of the law, then in the structural and cultural barriers driving de facto school segregation. And in the larger war for equitable education for all, some right-wing Asian Americans have been enlisted to provide a demographic twist on the escalating affirmative-action culture war. The Trump administration’s rollbacks parallel a major lawsuit against Harvard University, led by right-wing groups, claiming that Asian Americans and whites have been victimized by admissions policies that unfairly favor black and Latino applicants. Last fall, the Trump administration shifted its focus in civil-rights enforcement to scrutinizing what it called “intentional race-based discrimination.” The Justice Department officially backed the suit this week, while the university was filing final briefs in the hopes of avoiding a trial, further bolstering right-wing arguments that programs supporting black and Latino academic advancement are anti-meritocratic and unfairly discriminatory.
The Harvard case also echoes a debate unfolding in New York over school-diversity policies, where some Asian-American community advocates have assailed efforts to promote racial diversity in the city’s prized magnet schools by altering the testing protocols for acceptance to these schools.
The Trump administration’s political reversal on affirmative action, and the advancement of conservative legal attacks in the courts, reflects a generally reactionary climate in the politics of education. As with welfare reform and “zero-tolerance” policing, the pushback against affirmative action cloaks its racist subtext in a rhetoric of “defending” the civil rights of whites and Asian Americans.
Progressive Asian-American groups warn that their communities are being used a political cudgel in the affirmative-action debate. Thirty-five Asian-American civil-rights organizations and many academics filed amicus briefs defending affirmative action this week in the Harvard case. Racial barriers remain pervasive in both the K-12 education system and in higher education, and the real problems lie in discrimination on many levels, from social background, to different levels of academic preparedness, to unequal funding, and housing segregation—not simply whether the admissions officer at an elite school sees an Asian surname on the application.
According to Nicole Ochi, an attorney at Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, “Asian Americans are being used as a wedge in this debate, but really, affirmative action and race-conscious admissions policies are beneficial for all communities of color, including Asian Americans.”
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund argued in its brief filed on the Harvard case that allegations of anti-Asian discrimination obscure parallel socioeconomic inequities that transcend racial lines: “the Plaintiff’s broad-based attack will harm all minorities, including Asian Americans and especially those Asian American applicants in communities struggling with low educational attainment and low socioeconomic status.”
Jason Fong, an Asian-American high-school student who joined Advancing Justice’s 2016 amicus brief for the Harvard case, testified, “We know that in real life, an Ivy League pedigree is not enough to stop people from screaming at us to ‘go home’ or to stop U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from picking us up or stop TSA from racially profiling and escorting us off an airplane. Thus, if we are trying to use education as some sort of shield against discrimination, it isn’t working…. I feel it’s important for Asian Americans like myself to ask why we aren’t doing more to fight against racism directly.” He also noted that his activism had led to backlash from other Asian Americans, who condemned him as a “race-traitor.”
That affirmative action does not work as it should was actually an issue directly tackled in the Obama-era policy guidance that the Trump administration reversed. It was based on a 2007 landmark ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, which allowed for some limited uses of race as a factor in K-12 student placements. Reflecting past decisions that opposed the use of racial quotas to promote integration, the ruling did not support explicitly race-based admissions criteria, but did acknowledge that there were legitimate uses of “school diversity [as] a compelling government interest,” and schools could apply affirmative-action principles more holistically.
Fortunately, many school districts nationwide continue to promote proactive school integration through community-based programs that aim to equalize funding and resources between predominantly white and predominantly black or Latino schools, or to encourage admissions policies that consider socioeconomic and ethnic background. However, the White House and Republican lawmakers have sought to withdraw federal support for these initiatives, signaling opposition even to such voluntary integration efforts to diversify public education.
Asian Americans are not driving the structural racism of the education system, of course. They have instead been enlisted in an ideological drive to make the education system more exclusionary and hierarchical, in the name of “academic competitiveness”—a drive that erases the very real history of anti-Asian racism and exclusionary immigration policies that is historically intertwined with the history of Jim Crow.
The political exploitation of Asian-American anxieties in the affirmative-action debate now threatens to pit different communities of color against each other while bolstering the overarching structure of white supremacy. But educational opportunity is not a zero-sum game. Everyone loses when educational institutions pursue false notions of “excellence” at the expense of real social equity—especially the children who must inherit another generation of inequality.