Trump Department of Justice Prepares to Sue Universities Over "Discrimination" Against White Applicants

Posted Aug. 9, 2017

MP3 Interview with Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, conducted by Scott Harris


News reports indicate that the Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources within the Department of Justice civil rights division to launch investigations and possibly initiate lawsuits against universities over affirmative action admissions policies that they determine discriminate against white applicants.

In a 4 to 3 ruling in a 2016 affirmative action university admissions case, the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious program at the University of Texas at Austin. However, current lawsuits challenging similar university admissions policies favoring diversity on campus have targeted Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

The project to investigate alleged discrimination against white university applicants will be run by Trump political appointees at the Justice Department, not career civil servants who normally handle cases involving higher education institutions. This follows a pattern at the Trump Justice Department, where policy decisions on issues of voting rights, discrimination against the LGBTQ community and police misconduct appear to be driven by a white nationalist ideology. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who explains why civil rights groups across the country challenge the veracity of “reverse discrimination” charges, and plan to oppose government Trump administration litigation attacking university policies promoting diversity. [Rush transcript.]

BRENDA SHUM: This move by the Justice Department to assemble a team of attorneys who are being asked to investigate and challenge race-based admissions really signals another step forward in this administration's pretty aggressive campaign to roll back civil rights protections for some of our most historically disadvantaged students and that includes transgender youth, women and girls and students of color.

I think it's important for your listeners to view this move in context with other evidence that the Justice Department is departing from its core mission of protecting the civil rights of all citizens, including those related to voting, employment, policing and immigration.

This newest assault on affirmative action in higher education ignores the law; it ignores a growing body of social science research on the educational benefits of integrative learning environments and more importantly. It is out of step with our entrenched history of segregated education and the variety of ways in which it continues to impact the experience of students today.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I would ask you to respond that there are white applicants who are victims of reverse discrimination. How do you assess charges that white applicants for colleges and universities across the U.S. are meeting with some strong headwinds and can't get into college?

BRENDA SHUM: That's an important question and before I address that, I want to be very clear that just last year, the Supreme Court validated the constitutionality of race-based admission policies as long as they're applied in a holistic and narrowly tailored way. In Fisher v. Texas, our highest court reaffirmed that universities are entitled to use rates as one of many factors in order to achieve the educational benefits of diversity entirely consistent with the law and the Constitution. We understand that there are a number of those who believe that affirmative action should be equated with an unfair advantage and that is simply untrue.

If you take a look at the empirical data, it very clearly demonstrates that the admission policies which have been challenged – those at the University of Texas, those which are currently being challenged at Harvard and the University of North Carolina – race is just one of many factors that is considered by a university when trying to make a determination about how to diversify its student body.

Racial diversity is just one aspect of what a university is considering. It is not the only factor that is determinative of what decisions are made with respect to offers of admission.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And as to the plans of the Justice Department, I would assume that there is no real ability to pre-empt what they may be planning in terms of lawsuits against universities. But, groups like yours, I imagine, can intervene and support the institutions that may be on the attack list of the DOJ. Is that right?

BRENDA SHUM: Absolutely, and I think that this is a really good opportunity for me to just mention for your listeners' benefit that this strategy that's being adopted by the Department of Justice really marks a departure from their tactics in previous administrations and not just the Obama administration. The Department of Justice has never initiated litigation related to race-based admission. Those are normally brought by private parties and at most, the Department of Justice may decide to file a statement of interest or may decide to file a motion to intervene.

Moving forward, the Lawyers' Committee is in the process of developing a strategy to issue a variety of public information records request, some voyeur request where we are going to be seeking information to try to insert some level of transparency into the department's agenda. And we look forward to being able to share that information with the public once it becomes available.

For more information, visit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law at

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