Late in his improbable (and that word doesn't really do it justice) run toward the presidency, Donald Trump had a problem. People were starting to notice that the by-then GOP nominee had not said one word to make an even transparently token effort to woo African Americans. Hold my Diet Coke and bucket of KFC, the future 45th POTUS responded as he hit the campaign trail with a new monologue that managed to embrace virtually every ill-informed stereotype about black life in America while making his bizarre pitch for black votes.
Speaking in the overwhelmingly white suburban community of Dimondale, Mich., on Aug. 19 last year, Trump went off script to address the black people who weren't in the audience: "You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed — what the hell do you have to lose?"
Since then, Trump and his minions have made the answer abundantly clear. They can lose full access to the ballot box. They can lose their freedom, in the form of a renewed "war on drugs" and a return to mass incarceration policies that both fall hardest on African Americans. They can lose protection from police brutality in urban neighborhoods where cops too often act like an occupying army. And now, according to a bombshell report in the New York Times, they can lose access to college, as the Justice Department prepares a major probe into the phantom problem of university admission discrimination against whites — a move that could put a freeze on expanding educational opportunities for blacks.
To partially quote Trump: What the hell…?
The scoop on the college probe comes from the Times' Charlie Savage, who wrote that Trump's Justice Department is preparing to shift resources toward investigations and possible lawsuits involving affirmative-action-type admissions programs that present what an internal document calls "intentional" discrimination — against white applicants, that is. What's more, the paper reports that the effort would be run out of the "front office" of Justice's civil rights division — thus comprising Trump administration political appointees — as opposed to the Educational Opportunities Section, which would normally handle such probes and consists of career civil servants without a partisan ax to grind. Of course, merely announcing such an investigation could have a chilling effect on college admissions offices that have been looking for ways to boost campus enrollment of blacks, Latinos, and other nonwhite students.
The move represents the worst instincts of the Trump administration — and that is pretty bad, indeed. The lawyers working under Attorney General Jeff Sessions — once famously rejected for a federal judgeship by senators who heard testimony that Sessions is biased against blacks — are redirecting precious government resources to attack a problem that doesn't exist. More accurately, it's a problem that exists only as a right-wing radio trope, where Trump supporters get worked up about so-called "snowflakes" on campus and dismiss any protest against racism (not to mention sexism, etc.) as merely "political correctness run amok."
The reality? Despite a half-century-long push to boost black college enrollment and graduation rates rooted in the civil rights crusades of the 1960s and '70s, African Americans continue to lag on campus. For example, a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that although blacks constituted 14 percent of students ages 18 to 24, they earned only 9 percent of bachelor's degrees conferred. The reasons for this are many: poor and underfunded public schools in the neighborhoods where many black folks live, the ridiculous and ever-rising cost of a college education, lack of on-campus support for nonwhite students, and lingering racial bias in college admissions, among others. The bottom line is that in an era where a college diploma is more essential for joining the middle class than ever, the last thing that underrepresented black kids need is a cruel and pointless game of Whac-A-Mole from a Trump administration playing to the baseless prejudices of its white voter base.
"Once again, the Trump administration is relying on alternative facts," Shaun R. Harper, an education professor who recently left the University of Pennsylvania to become executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, told me by email Wednesday morning. "There is no bias against white applicants. Whites always have been, are, and very likely will forever be the single largest racial group to consistently benefit most from preferential treatment in college admissions. The overwhelming majority of admissions officers are white; they pick mostly white applicants year after year."
Irony abounds. Outside of Trump's Tea Party base, affirmative action remains a politically popular program supported by a nearly 2-1 ratio, the 2014 Pew study found — and even by a majority of whites. More important, Team Trump is showing off its remarkable ability — also highlighted in the recent health-care debacle — to attack make-believe crises while ignoring the real ones. Access to college — and the deeply intertwined issue of affordability — is one of America's biggest problems right now, and it affects economically disadvantaged white kids from pro-Trump coal counties in West Virginia, but also black kids from West Philly and Latino kids from South Texas.
That's why there's rapidly growing support for programs that would drastically reduce — and in many if not all cases, make free — the cost of a public university education for the majority of students who aren't wealthy. That's a winning issue that has absolutely zero to do with this proposed Justice Department "witch-hunt" that seems designed mainly to boost Sean Hannity's flagging TV ratings — and to hurt thousands of aspiring young African Americans in the process.
Did I mention irony? Because there's a huge one here. There is a very real form of discrimination when it comes to who gets into certain colleges, and that is the so-called legacy admissions that give an advantage to privileged kids — predominantly white — whose parents or other ancestors went to the same elite institutions. Or to the kids of rich donors. The Trump White House is intimately familiar with that latter scenario. Trump's son-in-law-turned-high-ranking-White-House-adviser, Jared Kushner, was by all accounts a mediocre student (if even that talented) at North Jersey's Frisch School when he stunned his guidance counselors and teachers by gaining acceptance to Harvard — just months after his rich developer dad (and future felon) Charles Kushner gave the top-ranked university a whopping $2.5 million.