One of the least surprising scoops from inside the Trump administration was revealed Tuesday night. The Justice Department under President Donald Trump, the New York Times reported, may focus the resources of the agency’s civil rights division on “investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”
Anyone with even a passing awareness of the focus of conservative media over the past eight years or so will understand that this was inevitable. Trump, an eager consumer of conservative news, has no doubt seen scores of Fox News segments focused on the effects of affirmative action, a subset of a broader focus on how Democrats - usually meaning people of color - undeservedly get things free: phones, education, housing, etc.
This isn’t an argument that’s unique to the far-right of Trump’s party. Shortly after he lost his race for the presidency, Mitt Romney lamented that his campaign’s sales pitch couldn’t compete with the “gifts” that President Barack Obama promised in the form of free health care and forgiveness of student loan debt. During last year’s Republican primaries, Jeb Bush - perhaps the most moderate candidate in the field - argued that he could win black votes because his message was one of “hope and aspiration,” not “one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”
There’s a difference between affirmative action and free college educations, obviously, but for some conservatives, they overlap in the same place: Someone, usually a nonwhite person, is getting something that isn’t deserved. And, moreover, those conservatives think the beneficiaries are doing so at the expense of someone else - in this case, whites who are denied admission or whites having to pay for it with their taxes.
It’s worth noting, first of all, that black and Hispanic college students are more likely to have to borrow to pay for a college education and that they end up having to borrow more money to cover college costs. A study from Demos analyzing federal data found that 86 percent of black students and 87 percent of Hispanic students got loans to attend private universities, compared to 72 percent of whites. (At public universities, 81 percent of black students got loans to 61 percent of whites.) A 2016 study found that low- and middle-income black students ended up accruing $7,721 more in education debt than whites from the same income brackets.
Blacks are also much less likely to go to college than are white students. Among those who complete high school, about 70 percent of whites enroll in college compared to 63 percent of blacks (as of 2015). But that’s among graduates: About 88 percent of white public high school students graduate compared to 75 percent of black students. More than a third of whites over the age of 25 have a college education compared to less than a quarter of American blacks. Part of this is a function of the long-term wealth gap between white and black households: College is less affordable to those with less income or family wealth, which also helps explain the need for more student loans.
There are two ways to consider these numbers in the context of college admissions. One is that the long-term gap in household wealth, in part a function of long-standing institutional racism, makes it inherently more difficult for black Americans to qualify and pay for higher education. The other is that those disparities should not come to bear on an evaluation of the worthiness of an individual college applicant.
In 2015, Gallup asked Americans how they felt about affirmative action for women and for racial minorities. Across the board, there was more support for policies that bolstered women - in itself a remarkable finding. There was also majority support for programs aimed at racial minorities, but among no groups was that support lower than with white men and Republicans.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric targeted those Americans directly. He argued repeatedly that the worst problems in the country were ones that they linked to nonwhite people: crime and drugs, which those voters saw as the fault of illegal immigrants, and terrorism, which was seen by them as the fault of immigrants and refugees. He also argued that the economic deck was stacked against normal working-class Americans, by which he meant white workers in the Midwest who’d once worked in coal mines and factories. It’s a very short step from there to blame nonwhites for those economic problems, too, in part by suggesting that they’ve gotten an unfair advantage in gaining access to the higher education that correlates to higher incomes over the long term.
So: Of course Trump’s Justice Department is going to focus on affirmative action. It’s part and parcel with the rest of his rhetoric, and follows closely with what the conservative media has deemed important.
Last year, Gallup did another poll on this question, asking Americans what factors should come into play when considering college applicants. About three-quarters of respondents said a student’s high school grades should be a major factor; about 3 in 10 said economic circumstances should be.
But what jumps out is a revealing comparison on affirmative action. Only 9 percent of respondents said that race or ethnicity should be a major factor in acceptance, with an additional 27 percent saying it should be a minor factor. But legacy admissions - giving preference to students whose parents had attended the same school - was viewed as something that should be considered with more weight than race.
In other words, affirmative action for those from college-educated families - families that, as above, are more likely to be white - was viewed as more acceptable than affirmative action for black or Hispanic students.
Trump himself went to the Wharton School of Finance, as did his children Donald Jr. and Ivanka. His administration therefore seems unlikely to have his attorney general focus on that injustice.
Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York City.