The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was created 60 years ago “to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society.” Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the department is now signaling its intent to use civil rights laws as a cudgel against racial minorities.
The news that Sessions is preparing to create a new section in the DOJ to investigate and punish universities for using race as one of a number of factors in admissions decisions is deeply disturbing and contrary to Supreme Court rulings. After all, the court has repeatedly supported the compelling interest colleges have in achieving racial diversity through carefully constructed admission plans. And the Justice Department itself in 2015 supported admissions programs, like that of the University of Texas, noting that “[n]umerous federal agencies have concluded that well-qualified graduates from diverse backgrounds are crucial to the fulfillment of their missions.”
The Trump administration is using the law in a way that most burdens those who are most vulnerable.
But that was then. Now, evidently, in Sessions’s view, the greatest civil rights problem the nation faces is the possibility that a college or university might consider the contributions that students of color would make to those institutions as a factor in admissions.
But the decision to attack diversity programs on campuses is, sadly, not surprising in the context of the policies articulated by this administration. It has, after all, created a commission to investigate voting fraud that doesn’t occur, even while numerous lawsuits have been successfully brought challenging voting schemes that rob minorities and other vulnerable groups of their ballot access. This is an administration that now wants to return to long discredited “war on drugs” that filled America’s prisons and unfairly targeted communities of color. And this is a Justice Department operating under a president, who despite irrefutable evidence of inappropriate use of force against minorities, has told law enforcement agents “don’t be too nice” in interactions with civilians.
This latest move by the administration is of a piece with those actions and others — such as efforts to strip LGBT communities of civil rights’ protections. The common thread is using the law in a way that most burdens those who are most vulnerable. The aim is to turn back the clock to a time when the most vulnerable were denied even the most basic access to the benefits of being American.
There is a frightening precedent for this retreat. Following a brief period after the Civil War when some efforts were made to achieve equality for newly freed slaves, there was a cruel and sudden turn to erase all progress on that front. That post-Reconstruction turn frequently relied on twisting existing laws to deprive newly enfranchised Blacks of all civil rights, including the right to vote. And that effort ushered in Jim Crow laws, brutal law enforcement, lynchings, denials of access to jobs, housing, education, and public accommodations.
Much remains to be done to achieve real equality in this country, and we cannot allow earlier gains to be systematically undone. We will be watching and taking appropriate actions to prevent the Trump administration from taking America back into its shameful past.