Civil rights groups fire back at Trump administration's investigation of affirmative action admissions

Civil rights groups are firing back Wednesday morning after the New York Times reported late Tuesday that the Justice Department is investigating and considering bringing lawsuits against universities over race-based affirmative action admissions policies that the Trump administration believes discriminate against white applicants.

"Diversity benefits communities, schools, and students from all backgrounds, especially those historically-underserved," John King, president and CEO of the Education Trust and former education secretary under Obama, said in a statement. "This is a principle affirmed by the Supreme Court and well understood in the higher education sector and business world."

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He continued: "I am deeply disheartened that the Administration appears to be taking a hard line against efforts to increase campus diversity rather than focusing on addressing the persistent opportunity gaps facing students of color and low-income students."

The New York Times story cites an internal document that from the civil rights division, which is reportedly seeking lawyers interested in "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions."

"By assembling a team of attorneys in the front office of the Civil Rights Division to focus on so-called 'intentional race-based discrimination', this Justice Department is laying the groundwork to attack policies that help promote racial diversity at colleges and universities," Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.

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Clarke noted that this isn't the first time Attorney General Jeff Sessions has tried to curtail affirmative action policies.

"He has a clear record of hostility to racial diversity," she said. "We will not stand by idly as this administration continues to hijack and obstruct this Division's core civil rights mission."

Race-conscious affirmative action has been used for decades to address past inequities and offer students from disadvantaged minority groups – especially African-Americans and Latinos – a better chance at gaining access to college.

The policy has come under fire in recent years, and eight states already ban affirmative action admission policies.

As recently as last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of race as a factor for admissions is lawful in Fisher v. University of Texas. However, the opinion in the 4-3 decision, which was hailed as a huge win for affirmative action supporters, left the door open to potential future legal challenges in reminding the University of Texas – and by default other schools that use race-conscious admissions policies – that its admissions process isn't necessarily the best way to address diversity.

The court is poised to consider race-based admissions policies yet again.

Indeed, a small but growing number of schools are instead turning to preferential admissions for poor students as a work-around.

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The idea is gaining traction among those who say the admissions process is rigged against high-achieving low-income students, and that, at a time when economic diversity has eclipsed race as the primary source of disadvantage, colleges and universities should be giving preference to exactly those students.

Critics of preferential admission for poor students, however, argue that income-based policies and affirmative action aren't interchangeable and that eliminating affirmative action will significantly reduce the number of black and Latino students at the country's best schools.

"Affirmative action is rooted in our nation's fundamental commitment to equality, a commitment this Administration woefully lacks and has expressed hostility towards," Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., said in a statement.

Ifill said this is just the latest in a string of attacks from the Justice Department on civil rights, including LGBT discrimination, voter suppression and endorsing police violence.

"We will bring the full force of the law if this Justice Department attempts to resegregate our institutions of higher learning," Ifill said.

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