On Tuesday, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era policy that encouraged schools to consider race in college admissions and student assignment in K-12 schools.
The Education and Justice departments pulled seven Obama-era guidances that laid out how schools could voluntarily promote diversity through admissions and school assignment. In addition to those guidances, the Justice Department pulled 17 other policy directives it deemed
“unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.”
In a letter signed by the new Education Department civil rights chief, Kenneth Marcus, and acting assistant attorney general John Gore, both officials note that a review by the departments concluded that the Obama-era documents “advocate policy preferences and positions beyond the requirements of the Constitution, Title IV, and Title VI” and “prematurely decide, or appear to decide, whether particular actions violate the Constitution or federal law.”
The administration’s decision comes as a federal lawsuit questioning admissions policies moves forward against Harvard University by Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative-backed not-for-profit led by Edward Blum, who most recently challenged affirmative action at the Supreme Court level in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in 2016.
In that case, the most recent legal precedent on the subject, the Supreme Court affirmed that the University of Texas, like other schools, can take race into account as a factor during the admissions process—a decision joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The new case, particularly with the recent retirement announcement of Justice Kennedy, puts that ruling in danger.
The Justice Department has already made clear its position on the matter, and back in November, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that the department had launched a probe into Harvard’s admissions policies after it received a civil rights complaint from a coalition of 60 Asian-American groups alleging bias from the university.
In an April court filing, siding with Blum’s group, the Justice Department requested that Harvard disclose its records on its admissions practices publicly, a move that Harvard’s attorney William Lee called “perplexing.”
Just after the news Tuesday, I spoke to Anurima Bhargava, who led civil rights enforcement in schools at the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, about how this move changes the landscape and why she’s hopeful schools will still take race into consideration.
Mother Jones: What was the original intent of the guidances that the Trump administration rescinded today?
Anurima Bhargava: They were put together to explain how schools, colleges, and universities could promote diversity and address segregation and racial isolation in ways that were consistent with the existing law.
They were meant to be a tool and resource. They were not making up new law and were more of a resource for schools to use as they established student assignment plans and admissions policies.
The second part of the guidances was to signal something that’s been consistent with the Supreme Court for many, many years, which is that promoting diversity and addressing segregation are important to the country, to the education of our children, and that we have a situation where kids can come together and feel like they are welcomed and comfortable and not in such few numbers that they are tokens in our schools.