The civil rights division of the Justice Department is planning to investigate and potentially take legal action against universities over affirmative action admissions policies that critics say discriminate against white applicants, according to a new report.
The New York Times, citing an internal document the newspaper obtained, reports that department leaders announced a new initiative involving “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”
But the Justice Department said Wednesday that the internal document was a job posting related to only one complaint, dismissing concerns that it was part of a broader effort. “The posting sought volunteers to investigate one administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations in May 2015 that the prior administration left unresolved,” spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said, referencing a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American students in admissions.
Still, the Times report sparked backlash among civil rights groups and fueled concerns about a rollback of civil rights protections under the Trump Administration, as many argued the project would be a step back for minority students who are underrepresented on college campuses.
“We wholly condemn this latest attempt by the Justice Department to attack the use of race-conscious admissions policies in the higher education context,” the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in a statement Tuesday. “We will not stand by idly as this administration continues to hijack and obstruct the civil rights division’s core mission to address discrimination face by racial minority groups in our country.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said a policy change “would mark an alarming shift in direction that threatens the hard-fought progress made by civil rights advocates and the department itself over the past decades.”
Controversial affirmative action policies have recently prompted lawsuits at Harvard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin. The Supreme Court ruled last year that officials at the University of Texas could continue considering race as one factor in admissions.
Those who considered that ruling a setback welcomed the Justice Department’s internal announcement this week.
“The 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,” Roger Clegg, president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, told the Times.
Clegg, who was previously an official in the civil rights division during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, called the development “long overdue.”
Edward Blum, who spearheaded the University of Texas suit and has brought other lawsuits against affirmative action, said he was hesitant to read too much into reports about the department’s internal memo.
“I’m going to defer answering on what the Trump Administration may or may not do because I don’t have a clue, but I will say that the issue of race in university admissions will not go away,” Blum told TIME. “It is inherently unfair for any college or university to treat students differently because of their skin color or ethnic heritage.”
Blum referenced a 2016 Gallup poll that found that 65% of Americans disapproved of the Supreme Court’s University of Texas decision. “If this administration embraces what the American people have already embraced, then we will applaud that,” he said.
During his campaign, President Donald Trump voiced support for affirmative action policies. “I’m fine with affirmative action,” he said in a Meet the Press interview in August 2015. “We’ve lived with it for a long time. And I lived with it for a long time. And I’ve had great relationships with lots of people. So I’m fine with it.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, has been more critical. In 1997, according to ABC News, Sessions said affirmative action has “been a cause of irritation and perhaps has delayed the kind of movement to racial harmony.”