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to dismantle the policy of affirmative action: Supposedly aiming to combat “reverse racism,” the administration has rescinded key Obama-era policy guidance that upheld the principle of encouraging diversity in K-12 and higher education.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.