On the night of August 1, America was greeted with the news that The New York Times had obtained a memo stating that President Trump has instructed the Justice Department's civil rights division to look into how white college applicants are being discriminated against due to affirmative action policies. This has been a topic of debate since it was established in 1961 by former president John F. Kennedy.
According to the NYT, opponents, as well as supporters, of this new project made it clear that the Justice Department under Trump is going after programs that benefit marginalized groups of people, such as black and latinx students. Roger Clegg, a former official in the civil rights division of the Justice Department during the Reagan and Bush senior administration, says that this is a long overdue project. Clegg, now the head of the conservative legal group, Center for Equal Opportunity, continued by saying that “civil rights laws were deliberately written to protect everyone from discrimination, and it is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian-Americans are as well.”
I won't lie, I am confused as to why Clegg is comparing the discrimination Asian-American students face in the college application process to any discrimination he feels white students face. One race is a traditionally marginalized group, as many were interned for an extended amount of time against their will in this country due to the paranoia of white people, and the other makes up the majority in this country and reaps the privileges that come with such a status.
As traditionally marginalized college students take in what this means for them and their respective communities, here are the reactions of seven of them:
Michelle H., Sophomore, SUNY Binghamton
"Trump's proposed affirmative action policy represents the mindset of those who enthusiastically supported his Make America Great Again agenda: Make America Great Again for white people and turn back the clock for every marginalized group in American society. Privileged white folks have become so accustomed to and ignorant of their superior status in this country that people of color trying to have a seat at the table feels like oppression to them. As a Latina college student, all this reverse racism motivated policy does is further inhibit people like me from pursuing their education. It's not surprising from this administration, but it's certainly disheartening."
Tatyana D., Sophomore, Ramapo College
"Civil rights was always a progressive endeavor up until this point but the Trump administration seems to be going in the opposite direction. And as an Afro-Puerto Rican female from the inner city, that's very worrying for me because what does that mean for us marginalized groups that are already underrepresented? Are we just going to be left behind—like usual? Are we going to add to the problem instead of reforming it? Now, moving on to affirmative action itself, the usual spiel that I hear from those who oppose it includes it being discriminatory towards white people. However, affirmative action is about bringing in students from historically underrepresented and oppressed backgrounds. I personally don't understand how anyone could get upset about that. Do you feel some type of way about not being included in these underrepresented groups? Well, gee, how terrible for you! How dare we not include the oppressors in a program geared towards the people who are being oppressed. Minorities and other marginalized groups are already at a disadvantage, and as someone from the inner city, I can see how us minorities going to school in lower income areas are not as fully prepared for college as other affluent neighborhoods. Affirmative action is by no way a leg up for every minority but it is merely one way colleges are trying to even out the playing field."
Cecily T., Junior, James Madison University
"So I think that this order stems from a blatant denial of systematic oppression and hierarchy in society. Affirmative action was put in place to make the 'playing field' a little more level. And the reason the oppressor stays in their position is because of denial and blatant domination over thoughts and feelings, and quite frankly: brainwashing. And until you understand systematic oppression and how oppressors keep privilege, then this attack on affirmative action will make sense. And it'll seem necessary. It'll seem like leveling out the playing field when in reality, this is the third leg to the college table. And without it, one side will fall, and it will fall. It will fail. It will not stand. This is not an attack on affirmative action and POC in general. It's the dismantling of YEARS of tears, frustration, denial, racism, sexism, xenophobia and PAIN from the lighter and fair skinned. You want an example of whitewashing? You have it. And I'll encourage conversations with people who aren't old white men, because you wouldn't talk to an engineer about the health system. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't apply. So why are they still making the decisions? Because they've set up society in a way that benefits them, year after year. So they can. They do this because they can. Period."
*Cecily is a POC.
Emma R., Junior, University of Louisville
"As a white woman, I am part of a group that has benefited from affirmative action perhaps more than most people expect. Yet white women are some of the most vehement opponents of affirmative action; though we may face discrimination due to gender, race is something we are allowed to ignore because we are privileged in that regard. Those who hold power perceive progress as an attack, as if there are a finite number of rights to be allocated and marginalized people (in this case, students of color) are taking them away. This isn’t true, and the belief that white students are being discriminated against is white fragility in action. It’s paranoia, and paranoia backed by power has never produced good results.
When colleges have a truly diverse student body, everyone benefits from numerous perspectives and experiences; this, along with so many other reasons, makes the possibility of Department of Justice resources being used to work against campus diversity absolutely infuriating. My school, the University of Louisville, markets itself as a diverse institution, but people of color only comprise about 25% of the student body. This can be attributed in part to the long history of institutional racism that has barred students of color from higher education. Barriers still exist, and affirmative action is a way to help marginalized students get past these barriers that don’t exist for other students."
Catie P., Sophomore, Ramapo College
"Many of the people opposing affirmative action are actually white women because they don't know that they've been benefiting from it for decades. I'm a white woman, too, and although I've never been opposed to the program, I had no idea until today that gender was included. It surprised me to learn that affirmative action is what made women able to stake their place in the workforce at a time when many people were against them leaving the home. Unfortunately it hasn't helped women of color nearly as much, and so while the program isn't perfect, it's not for the reasons Trump and his followers believe."
Juliann S., Junior, University of Ohio
"I feel like every time I turn around, this administration's sticky toddler hand is back in the clean laundry basket, searching for some new facet of American life to soil. Coming from a poverty background as a queer woman, I'm more than aware affirmative action helped me get into college — scholarships I was rewarded and opportunities I had that as a welfare recipient and someone who only ate off of an EBT card could have only dreamed of before it. But I also fully recognize that my white privilege helped me get to college, and stay there, when my financial situation and lack of parental support showed no reason to assume I could handle the pressure and the costs of being a full time student. Affirmative action wasn't designed to benefit people who already are in positions of privilege, like white cis male middle class students, nor to displace them. If they perceive something that seeks to level the playing field (so to speak) as hostile towards them, it just shows they view their rights as the only ones that are 'real,' and therefore matter."
Kez S., Junior, Ramapo College
"Affirmative Action isn't racist against white people, and usually affirmative action benefits white women more than it benefits people of color. It isn't a perfect program, but that doesn't mean that we should completely get rid of it without a better replacement. And so far, Trump doesn't seem to care about a better replacement.
Affirmative action exists because white privilege is a factor in getting accepted into colleges. People of color need a boost to be equal. Affirmative action isn't about getting people who would otherwise not be qualified into places like college, it is about giving qualified people a fairer chance to get into college."
*Kez is a POC.
Critics of affirmative action on college campuses often feel that it is an unfair program because it gives preferential treatment to specific groups of people. Critics even say that it is racist because, God forbid, a black student has a chance at getting a college education. This group of people says acceptance to higher education programs needs to based on merit, regardless of your race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. However, this notion is based on equality. While equality is certainly not bad, this notion assumes that we all start out life on an equal playing field, which we most certainly do not. Due to this, we must apply the notion of equity to college applicants. In this context, equity is the idea that you give a traditionally marginalized person what they need specific to their circumstance in order to achieve the outcome that someone who is not marginalized would achieve. In other words, say you have three children trying to watch a baseball game from behind a fence.
One child is tall enough to see over the fence and has no problem watching the game. The other two children, though they are of varying heights, are both too short to see over the fence. Equality is giving all three children a box to stand on; it helps, but nowhere near enough. Equity is giving the shorter children as many boxes as they need so that all three of the children are at the same height, therefore, having the same exact view.
This is the idea that affirmative action is based on. It ensures that women, who were not attending college in equal numbers as men until as late as 1980, can obtain a college degree. It gives folks, especially latinx immigrants, living in dire poverty a chance break that cycle of poverty, just like my mom did. Finally, it gives a race who continues to face widespread discrimination in all aspects of their life after being held as property for hundreds of years a chance to catch up. Affirmative Action is not perfect, but is a very necessary tool because it is the best remedy we currently have to improving a system that is rigged against millions of folks in America. Those who feel otherwise need to take off their rose-colored glasses and see the bigger picture.
Lead Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Author's Note: Some quotes have been edited and shortened for clarity.