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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, August 02, 2017

 

The schoolhouse door again

by Tom Sullivan


Vivian Malone entering Foster Auditorium to register for classes at the University of Alabama. (Library of Congress)

Why?

Yes, yes, discrimination against white people is just the sort of rumor Fox News enjoys throwing gasoline on for days at a time. But now the Trump Justice Department is getting in on the act.

A document obtained by the New York Times indicates the Justice Department’s civil rights division plans to sue universities that discriminate against white applicants in favor of minority ones:

The document, an internal announcement to the civil rights division, seeks current lawyers interested in working for a new project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” The announcement suggests that the project will be run out of the division’s front office, where the Trump administration’s political appointees work, rather than its Educational Opportunities Section, which is run by career civil servants and normally handles work involving schools and universities.
"Intentional race-based discrimination" would seem to cover affirmative action efforts in place for decades. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case just last year that universities had "considerable deference" in how to administer affirmative action programs. That Justice Samuel Alito called the ruling "affirmative action gone berzerk" was probably enough for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Washington Post's account adds that officials within the civil rights division refused to work on the project, seeing it as contrary to the department's longstanding approach to expanding educational opportunities. So the political division took over. Vanita Gupta, former head of the civil rights division under the Obama administration called the project “an affront to our values as a country and the very mission of the civil rights ­division.” She told the Post:
“Long-standing Supreme Court precedent has upheld the constitutionality and compelling state interest of these policies, and generations of Americans have benefited from richer, more inclusive institutions of higher education,” Gupta said.
Now, it is not as if discrimination against white people is an impossibility. Certainly current demographic trends make people accustomed to seeing this as a white, Christians-only country are nervous about being on the receiving rather than the giving end of racial discrimination. But other than Fox News' interest in boosting its ratings, who is pushing for targeting universities on this? Neither report says.

In the past, conservative politicians went after universities as centers of liberal strength they meant to weaken. What is novel here, other than the attempt to intimidate universities and fuel the culture war, is the attempt to limit the access to them by non-whites by claiming it is whites facing discrimination. Not that Sessions fans are clamoring to get into engineering or law schools and failing to. But keeping others out of "white" institutions has a long tradition in places Sessions finds support, even among those who themselves will never attend. Discrimination is about maintaining the establish pecking order.

This Justice Department effort grows from another conservative tradition: "wedging." Urban vs. rural, us vs. Them. Keeping resentment properly stoked is good politics out in red America. Slate's Isaac Chotiner spoke with political scientist Katherine J. Cramer who has studied voters in rural Wisconsin. Cramer tell him in spite of being city dwellers, Gov. Scott Walker and Donald Trump are masters of tapping rural resentment:
You can’t separate culture and economics. When people are telling me that they’re not getting their fair share, and they’re feeling like all the taxpayer dollars go to the cities, and that they pay in a lot of taxes but they don’t see that money in return, they’re also telling me, “That money is going to people who don’t deserve it as much as I do, and don’t seem to be working as hard as I do.” And some of that is racist sentiment. Whether we’re talking about cultural issues in terms of race or ethnicity or immigration, we’re also talking about it in terms of just the lifestyles of city people versus the lifestyles of people in rural areas, and the sense of who works hard: People who sit behind a desk all day or people who are doing manual labor? Economic insecurity is intertwined with their sense of deservingness, which is a very cultural notion. So in my mind you can’t really separate the two.
Or who deserves to get into college and who doesn't. The Justice Department investigating universities isn't any more about discrimination against white people than the president's voter fraud commission is about election integrity. It is about keeping Republican base voters engaged for the next election. "Real Americans" consider any election they lose discrimination against them too.

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