by Jelani Cobb
In a recent suit brought by Abigail Fisher, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld universities’ right to use race as a factor in admissions. Now the Trump Administration is taking aim at such policies.
Photograph by Luke Sharrett / NYT / Redux
In 2011, the year Donald Trump became the standard-bearer for the racist campaign to challenge Barack Obama’s citizenship, he didn’t just lob conspiracies about the President’s birthplace; he also questioned how Obama gained admission to two Ivy League universities. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible,” Trump remarked, to the Associated Press. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? I’m thinking about it. I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.” Coming just two days before Obama released his long-form birth certificate, the attack on the President’s educational background tipped Trump’s hand. He was not simply intent on delegitimizing the first black Presidency but also the processes that made one possible in the first place.
This broader theme was easy to miss in the scrum of last year’s campaign, as duelling perspectives debated whether “economic anxiety” or populist racism was the more active ingredient in Trumpism. Trump likely understood that this was always a false dichotomy. The dominant theme in the history of American populism, from the days of Tom Watson through those of George Wallace, is that resentful whites understand their economic status not in absolute terms but relative to the blacks whom they perceive as the true barometer of their standing. The question is not whether C.E.O.s have salaries hundreds of times larger than their own but whether black people have salaries comparable to theirs. The forces that have ravaged the American working classes were set loose four decades ago and were turbocharged by the end of the Cold War, but it took two terms of a black Presidency for much of this public to recognize that its fortunes were in a tailspin. Until 2008, this group had lacked a static landmark against which to measure whether it was moving backward or forward. Obama became that.
Thus Barack Obama and Donald Trump don’t simply represent successive Presidencies; they personify rival genealogies of our current moment, warring claims to history. Where Obama built a movement to shake off the dead hand of history, Trump was hoping to reanimate that hand and clench it into a fist.
These are the tea leaves that foretold Tuesday night’s leak of the Department of Justice memo announcing its plan to mount a legal challenge to affirmative action in university admissions. Politically, the leak of the memo has the possibly intentional effect of reminding conservatives why they should defend Jeff Sessions from Trump’s attempts to replace him as Attorney General. But its significance extends beyond the factional G.O.P. infighting. The memo became public one day before Trump’s endorsement of a Senate bill that would curb legal immigration to the United States. (At a press briefing, Stephen Miller explained the move in terms that recalled the language of the racialist Immigration Act of 1924.) These two initiatives, along with the constant talk of building a border wall and the Administration’s fulminations about trade deficits, point to an over-all endeavor to create a kind of racial protectionism, to socially engineer a world in which whites—the unheralded disadvantaged class in America—once again have a deck stacked in their own favor. The logical yield of this week’s news is fewer students who are the children of immigrants and fewer black students, whose presence deprives whites of warranted opportunities.
Fisher v. University of Texas, the most recent challenge to affirmative action in higher education to reach the Supreme Court, provides significant context for this week’s developments. By 2013, when the Court first ruled on Fisher’s legal challenge to the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions process, sizable minorities of whites had begun to describe themselves, in public-opinion polls, as the most disadvantaged group in American society. African-Americans constituted more than eleven per cent of the population of Texas but just 4.5 per cent of the university population. Fisher’s suit relied on the fact that African-Americans with lower grades than hers had been admitted to U.T. while she had not. But this grievance overlooked the university’s broad formula of factors for admission; in fact, of the forty-seven students admitted to U.T. with lower grades and test scores than Fisher’s, forty-two were white. Last year, after taking up the Fisher case again, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld universities’ right to use race as one factor among many in their admissions processes.
As Sherrilyn Ifill, the director-counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, pointed out, officials at the Justice Department are “attempting to use the resources of the executive branch to achieve what they have not been able to do at the Supreme Court.” Although Trump questioned the basis for Obama’s presence at two Ivy League schools, in absolute terms, blacks remain a marginal presence at the nation’s flagship institutions. Last year, African-Americans constituted just five per cent of the students at élite universities, with a large portion of that minority coming from abroad. In the hands of the Trump Administration, that number could, conceivably, grow smaller, not just at élite universities but across higher education. (Incidentally, Trump suggested earlier this year that historically black colleges might be discriminatory against white students.)
Trump has never possessed any capacity for discretion. But this is the week that the relationship between seemingly disparate pieces of his resentment agenda became clearer. Barring additional retirements at the Supreme Court, the Justice Department’s affirmative-action initiative will face obstacles, and any plan to cut immigration in half stands little chance of gaining momentum in Congress. But this week was not about practicalities. It was about throwing red meat to a restless base that has already witnessed the debacle of the failed Obamacare repeal and the internecine brawling in the executive branch. Trump and his allies can’t deliver on their promises yet. They’re requesting patience until they figure out the politics that will.