The Trump Administration Is Escalating its War on People of Color By Undermining Affirmative Action

President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, August 2017.

Since its inception, the Trump administration has consistently undermined the work of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which is tasked with protecting historically oppressed groups from discrimination. This week, The New York Times revealed that the Trump administration is diverting the division’s resources to attack affirmative action efforts nationwide. Under the guise of protecting Asian students, the Trump administration seeks to shield white people from the specter of reverse discrimination and disrupt policies that help people of color gain educational opportunities. If the administration succeeds, countless people of color could face reconstructed barriers to higher education.

Affirmative action plays a critical role in extending educational opportunities to all people of color. For centuries, racial discrimination prevented qualified candidates from enrolling in the nation’s top universities. Now, many universities prioritize diversity and recognize that it benefits all students on campus. Affirmative action’s benefits are made most clear when the effects of banning it are considered. For example, an analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that minority representation is significantly lower in states that have banned affirmative action. Another study estimated that, compared to their peers, underrepresented minority students experienced a 23 percentage point decline in the likelihood of public college admission after state affirmative action bans came into effect. Beyond its many benefits (and the risks associated with banning it), academically selective universities and Fortune 500 companies support affirmative action on college campuses.

Despite this clear evidence, opponents of educational equity have laid siege to affirmative action for years. Last year, an anti-affirmative action lawsuit made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court ruled that race-conscious admissions programs are constitutional. In the court’s decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy underscored the value of diversity, writing for the majority, “A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness’… 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.”

Still, the Supreme Court’s ruling has not prevented the administration from seeking to undermine affirmative action. According to an internal document, the politically charged front office of the Civil Rights Division is recruiting lawyers to investigate and potentially sue universities for implementing programs designed to bolster student diversity. By engaging in such behavior, the administration discards decades of institutional precedent and sends a message that it rejects the notion that deference is owed to a university when it comes to prioritizing diversity.

The Trump administration sought to downplay its actions by stating that it wants to prevent universities from discriminating against Asian students through affirmative action. They argue prioritizing black or Latino students results in discrimination against Asian students. Denounced by dozens of national Asian Pacific American organizations, this argument is a clear attempt to exploit the model-minority myth as part of a greater effort to divide communities of color and shield white people from the specter of reverse discrimination. Affirmative action policies benefit all Asian Americans, especially refugees, first-generation students, and those from low-income families, and this is simply a distraction from the administration’s true goals.

Unfortunately, these disturbing actions are not an anomaly but instead are consistent with the administration’s steadfast determination to gut or eliminate programs that extend protections or opportunities to people of color. Most recently, the administration tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and slash funding for Medicaid. If they had succeeded, it would have increased health disparities and resulted in 8.7 million fewer people of color covered by Medicaid in 2026. The administration has also proposed weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which among other things, protects people of color from wealth-stripping financial products and fights against discrimination in auto lending, mortgages, and credit cards. This latest action simply serves as further evidence that the administration considers the unique needs of communities of color invalid and insignificant.

Students of color face systemic barriers to educational opportunity and remain underrepresented in postsecondary institutions. Instead of bolstering campus diversity efforts, the Trump administration is using precious Civil Rights Division resources to threaten the progress our country has made toward educational equity. The administration has escalated its war on people of color, and if it succeeds, countless children of color could face reconstructed barriers to opportunity.

Connor Maxwell is the research associate for Progress 2050 at Center for American Progress. Sara Garcia is a research associate on the Postsecondary Education team at the Center.