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Trump’s Attack on Affirmative Action

Campaigning for the presidency, Donald Trump argued that blacks and other people of color should vote for him. Given their current conditions, he argued, “What the hell do you have to lose?” Since winning election, however, Trump seems intent on proving over and over again just how much African-Americans and other minorities have to lose.

Under Trump’s attorney general, former Alabama Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, the Justice Department has been turned into a Department of Injustice. Sessions, once rejected by a Republican-majority Senate for racially biased actions and statements when nominated to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan, has set about implanting Dixiecrat justice on the nation’s minorities.

He has directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest sentences possible for nonviolent drug offenses, ensuring the continued incarceration of a disproportionate number of African Americans. The Justice Department has retreated from what was an emerging bipartisan consensus on sensible police reform. It has changed positions to support state laws that suppress minority voting rights. It has extended the federal government’s power to seize the property of innocent Americans.

Now, as reported in the New York Times, the Department is seeking political attorneys to investigate and sue universities “over affirmative action policies that are deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” The assault on affirmative action is classic dog whistle racial politics.

In fact, as former University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger has shown, affirmative action has helped to expand opportunity. Campuses across the country have become more representative of the American people. This has not only helped counter centuries of discrimination; it also allows students to learn with and from people of different backgrounds. This helps prepare the future leaders and citizens of the country.

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that a diverse student body is an educational benefit and a boon to the country that justifies affirmative action.

Those who oppose it often assume that university admissions are based upon one objective scale: grade point and standardized test results. This is, in a word, nonsense. University admissions offices labor intensely to create a diverse body of students capable of doing the work necessary to succeed. Grades and standardized tests count, as does the quality of prior educational experience. So does the luck of having an alum as a parent, or wealthy relations who can add to the university endowment, or special athletic or musical or dramatic skills, coming from underrepresented rural communities or from abroad, and more.

Some of these categories — say having parents who are alumni or are wealthy — discriminate disproportionately against people of color, since African-Americans were forbidden to build fortunes under slavery and were often excluded from college admissions until the civil rights movement’s reforms. Affirmative action helps to level the playing field.

Another lie propagated by its opponents is that affirmative action policies make it significantly harder for white students to get into selective colleges. In fact, as Derek Bok, former Harvard president, and William Bowen, former president of Princeton, reported, if selective universities had a completely race-blind admissions policy, the probability of being admitted for a white student would rise from 25 percent to 26.2 percent.

A final myth is that race no longer matters. The right-wing gang of five justices in the Supreme Court argued this in gutting provisions of the Voting Rights Act. States across the country then proved them wrong by enacting new voting restrictions — a revival of Jim Crow voter suppression schemes — that were designed to make it harder for African-Americans and students to vote. America is more segregated than it was at the time of the civil rights movement. Our public schools are too often separate and unequal. Race still matters in this country, big-time.

What do we have to lose with Trump? Equal opportunity, voting rights, police reform, sentencing reform, university admission. People of color are learning that when Trump trumpets America First, he doesn’t include them in his America.

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Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.

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