The New York Times and the Washington Post ran breathless stories last week about an investigation being launched by the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions into college-admission practices. “The Trump administration,” proclaimed the Times, “is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants,” (emphasis added), citing an internal job posting for the new project that had apparently been leaked to the paper. The Post’s opening line used the same language about policies that “discriminate against white applicants” to describe the initiative. 

The articles each mention Asian students only once, in passing. The Times quotes former Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush civil rights official and affirmative-action critic Roger Clegg as stating that “not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian-Americans are as well.” The Post, in its last line, notes that two pending federal court cases, against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, “allege that race-conscious admissions policies result in discrimination against Asian American applicants.”

The Post should have led its article with that detail. In fact, as a Justice Department spokeswoman explained in a statement terming the articles “inaccurate,” the investigation pertains solely to a parallel administrative complaint against Harvard, modeled on the court suit, charging the university with discriminating against Asian-Americans applicants. The investigation does not reflect any “initiative, or policy related to university admissions in general,” she stated.

The administrative complaint in question was filed with the Justice Department and with the Department of Education (DOE) by a coalition of 64 Asian-American organizations in May 2015. The DOE and the Justice Department have concurrent jurisdiction with the courts over the civil rights laws governing colleges; the DOE dismissed the complaint due to the pending court action, but the Obama administration Justice Department never acted on it.

In a grudging follow-up story on Thursday, the Times conceded that its earlier article had framed the new project “as apparently being about hunting for practices deemed to discriminate against white people.” But it quibbled that skepticism about the more limited scope of the project claimed by the Justice Department was in order because the “personnel announcement said it was seeking multiple lawyers to work on ‘investigations,’ plural” rather than a single investigation. Of course, the singular and plural forms of this word are often used synonymously by both prosecutors and the press.  Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s commission is to conduct an “investigation” of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, but he doesn’t seem to be confining himself to the singular, and the Times is hardly urging him to.

Putting both quibbles and counter-quibbles aside, though, the Times is correct to fear that the challenge to Harvard’s admissions policies by Asian Americans could lead to an eventual Supreme Court prohibition of racial preferences in college admissions.  The federal lawsuit is quite explicit about this goal, and Court observers have long seen the case as a vehicle to overturn earlier decisions allowing the use of such preferences.  But what the Times can’t bring itself to acknowledge is that the reason that the Harvard case may play this role is because it starkly illustrates that the burden of these preferences now falls squarely on another historically marginalized racial minority. Studies by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade have shown that Asians applying to selective private schools need SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics and some 450 points (out of 1600) higher than blacks to be admitted, and that racial preferences for blacks and Latinos at elite colleges come almost entirely at the expense of Asian-Americans rather than whites: if affirmative action were eliminated, “[n]early four out of every five places . . . not taken by African-American and Hispanic students would be filled by Asians.”

The Times itself, in another follow-up story on Thursday, let slip that “[t]he data, experts say, suggests that if Harvard were forbidden to use race as a factor in admissions, the Asian-American admissions rate would rise, and the percentage of white, black and Hispanic students would fall.” Thus, the investigation that the Times presented as a reactionary initiative to preserve white privilege would, if advanced to its logical conclusion, actually hurt white applicants. Such are the ironies of racial preferences in a multiracial age. As I wrote in City Journal last year on this topic, “affirmative action, the flagship policy of multiculturalists, has foundered on multiculturalism itself—and it’s time to pull the plug on it.”

Photo by Glen Cooper/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next