Trump administration finds a battle against racism worth fighting: Affirmative action at Harvard

The Justice Department is siding with an anti-affirmative action group in their lawsuit against Harvard

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 30, 2018 4:31PM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Reuters/Nati Harnik/iStock/Salon)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Nati Harnik/iStock/Salon)

President Donald Trump's Justice Department has just decided to take the same side as an anti-affirmative action group in a major legal case.

"Harvard’s race-based admissions process significantly disadvantages Asian-American applicants compared to applicants of other racial groups — including both white applicants and applicants from other racial minority groups," the Justice Department proclaimed in a court filing on Thursday, according to Politico. Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that "no American should be denied admission to school because of their race" and claimed that a current lawsuit against Harvard University is "significant because the admissions policies at our colleges and universities are important and must be conducted lawfully."

The Justice Department also wrote that "Harvard admits that, on average, it scores Asian-American applicants lower on the personal rating than white applicants. Yet when an internal Harvard report pointed out that the personal rating may be infused with racial bias and sought authorization to study the issue further, Harvard buried it. On this record, a fact finder could reasonably conclude that the personal rating at worst reflects racial stereotypes against Asian Americans and at best encompasses an intentional and unexplained use of race."

The lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions is at the center of the Justice Department's decision. It is being waged by Ed Blum, the head of Students for Fair Admissions, an attorney who specializes in legal cases fighting affirmative action and whose current suit accuses Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Blum has also been behind a number of legal actions that take conservative positions on racial issues, from challenging the affirmative action policies at the University of Texas at Austin to arguing that electoral representation should not include non-citizens, former felons and children when drawing legislative districts (both federal and local), a stance that would effectively dilute the influence of many racial minority groups.

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One important detail distinguishes this lawsuit from its predecessors: The fact that the Supreme Court is about to be remade in Trump's image. When Blum represented Abigail Fisher, an applicant at the University of Texas at Austin who claimed she was rejected because she was right, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission."

That was back in 2016 — and the author of that opinion was Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing judge whose decision to retire earlier this year has led to him being potentially replaced by Kavanaugh.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Affirmative Action Donald Trump Ed Blum Harvard Harvard University