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Nikole Hannah-Jones on DOJ’s Attack on Affirmative Action & How School Segregation Never Ended

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The New York Times is reporting the Justice Department is preparing to investigate universities’ affirmative action policies for anti-white bias, in what critics say is the latest assault against civil rights by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Times says the Justice Department sent out an internal announcement looking for lawyers to lead “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action policies, which take race and ethnicity into account in college admissions in efforts to address centuries of institutionalized discrimination against people of color and women. We speak with Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning reporter covering racial injustice at The New York Times Magazine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times is reporting the Justice Department is preparing to investigate and sue universities’ affirmative action policies for anti-white bias, in the latest assault against civil rights by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Times says the Justice Department sent out an internal announcement looking for lawyers to lead, quote, “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions,” unquote. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund promised to sue the administration if it targets affirmative action policies, saying, “We will bring the full force of the law if this Justice Department attempts to resegregate our institutions of higher learning,” unquote. Former Justice Department attorneys have expressed alarm that the project will be run out of an office staffed by Trump administration political appointees instead of the Educational Opportunities Section, which would normally handle such inquiries.

The Trump administration is claiming The New York Times report is inaccurate. A Department of Justice spokesperson said the internal memo dealt not with anti-white bias but an administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations in 2015.

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action policies, which take race and ethnicity into account in college admissions in efforts to address centuries of institutionalized discrimination against people of color and women.

We’re joined now by Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning reporter covering racial injustice at The New York Times Magazine.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Nikole.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the Times found, even though the Trump administration has said that the reports are inaccurate?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, the Times received a memo that said that they were looking—the Justice Department was looking to hire people to look into intentional discrimination in college admissions. And so, people on—who are opponents and proponents of affirmative action take that to mean that they are going to go after anti-white, or what they consider anti-white, bias in the admissions process.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly what you believe they’re taking on.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, I think they’re going to start investigating college admissions processes that are designed to help alleviate this nation’s long history of racial discrimination. We understand that we have a segregated K-12 system that produces very unequal results for black and Latino students, who receive an inferior education. And so, oftentimes colleges will take that into account in the admissions process. And so, the expectation is that the administration, instead of working to vindicate the rights of traditionally, historically marginalized and oppressed minorities, is now going to be going after what they consider a white majority being oppressed, apparently, by these minority groups.

AMY GOODMAN: During the news briefing on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was questioned about The New York Times article.

JUSTIN SINK: Does the president believe that white applicants to college are the victim of discrimination?

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I’m not aware of that opinion at all. I certainly haven’t had that conversation or have any reason to—

JUSTIN SINK: Well, then can you explain why the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is devoting its limited time and resources to—

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Quite an accusatory question, but I’d be happy to respond. The New York Times article is based entirely on uncorroborated inferences from a leaked internal personnel posting in violation of Department of Justice policy. And while the White House does not confirm or deny the existence of potential investigations, the Department of Justice will always review credible allegation of discrimination on the basis of any race. And I don’t have anything further on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response? Your response to the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, I think, one, it’s important to have understanding of what affirmative action is supposed to do. Affirmative action is not disadvantaging white students. And it is not a program to advantage black students. It is a program designed to address the nation’s legacy of discrimination, where, for centuries, black Americans were barred from institutions of higher learning. I think it might be helpful to read a quote from Lyndon B. Johnson, who actually created affirmative action. And what he said is, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line … and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still … believe that you have been completely fair.” So, what we know is that at elite colleges and universities in this country, black Americans make up only 5 percent of students enrolled, with affirmative action. So, it’s kind of hard to prove that large numbers of white Americans are being discriminated against, when black and Latino students are still underrepresented in four-year institutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Fisher v. University of Texas and held that that the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admission program is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. I want to turn to a video of the petitioner in the case, Abigail Fisher, who said she was rejected by the University of Texas because she’s white.

ABIGAIL FISHER: There were people in my class with lower grades, who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin. … A good start to stopping discrimination would be getting rid of the boxes on applications—male, female, race, whatever. Those don’t tell the admissions people what type of student you are or how involved you are. All they do is put you into a box. Get rid of the box.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Abigail Fisher. You’ve written extensively about this case. Can you talk about it?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Sure. So, I think the most interesting aspect of this case, and a case that doesn’t appear to be widely known among Americans, is that Abigail Fisher actually cannot prove that she was discriminated against. What the record shows is that there were black and Latino students with better test scores than her who also didn’t get in, and that there were white students who had worse test scores than Abigail Fisher who did get in. So, in fact, that case is not about her being discriminated against. It’s about this belief, by certain conservatives, that you should never take race into account, even if you’re trying to address an historical legacy of discrimination and ongoing discrimination. They will tell you—the lawyer who brought this case, I interviewed him, and he admitted that he could not prove that Abigail Fisher was discriminated against, and, really, that was irrelevant to him. But that’s not what the common reporting has been understanding of this case. The understanding of the case is that she was treated unfairly.

What also wasn’t talked about is, in Texas, the way Texas’s affirmative action works is, if you’re a white student, you also can get points for your race. If you’re a white student who happened to go to a heavily black or Latino high school, you would also get points in the admissions process at Texas.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about here, in New York City—you’ve done a lot of reporting here, where we are—saying, in secondary education, it’s actually the most segregated system in the country, and that—how that is reflected in higher education?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So, we pretend that college admissions is based on a meritocracy, that every student is coming from an even playing field, and the best students, the students who work the hardest, are the ones who get the highest test scores and have the best grades and should get in. But we know that that is fundamentally untrue. In New York City, which is the most segregated large school system in the country, and all across the country, black and Latino students are in schools that are the least likely to have college prep curriculum, they’re the least likely to have higher-level sciences, higher-level math classes. And so, what that means is that they cannot compete on ACTs and SATs with the test scores that white students, who are in far better-resourced schools, can achieve. So, to then, when we start looking at college admissions, to say every student should be treated the same, I think, is just a denial of the facts on the ground, that we know that black and Latino students, no matter how hard they work, are not getting the same education, as a whole, as white students are getting.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikole Hannah-Jones, this whole issue of who is preferred when it comes to getting into college, what about this piece that ProPublica—where ProPublica points out, and others, how, for example, Jared Kushner’s family basically bought Jared a spot at Harvard? Explain that history.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Right. So, there was a book that was written about legacy admissions. And legacy admissions are how many elite universities and other universities give extra points to children of alumni. And it was looking at how the elite are able to kind of buy their way or buy their children’s way into Ivy League and other elite schools. Jared Kushner’s father gave, I believe, $2.5 million to Harvard. And this journalist went back and looked at the high school that Jared Kushner went to, and said that the counselors there said he was not a good student, he should not have gotten into Harvard, and actually said that there were other students at that school who had far greater merit, who they assumed would get in, and who didn’t.

So I think what’s important to understand is what the Justice Department is doing is not about fairness. It is specifically about race, because if they were going to address fairness, there are a whole host of issues in college admissions that disadvantage certain students over others and advantage the same students who traditionally have always been advantaged. And they’re not going after these other issues. They’re only going after programs that are having really a minute effect on the number of black and Latino students at institutions of higher learning.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll link to that ProPublica piece that’s headlined “The Story Behind Jared Kushner’s Curious Acceptance into Harvard,” by Daniel Golden. Golden wrote a book a decade ago called The Price of Admission. In ProPublica, he writes, quote, “My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school.” He also wrote, “I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.” Now, Nikole, I wanted to ask you about the front-page piece in your paper today, The New York Times, “Asians Become Focus of Battle on Admissions.” Talk about this.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, I think that there—the people who are trying to challenge affirmative action are very savvy about how to do this. There’s a reason why the big affirmative action cases that have gone before the Supreme Court were brought by white women and not white men, because there’s a sense that people will not feel that sympathetic towards white men, but they will feel sympathy towards white women, believing that women have been historically discriminated against. And now they are moving to the next level, which is to try to use another racial minority group to prove that their efforts are not racist, that their efforts are not racially motivated.

The problem is, Asian Americans, of course, have a very, very different experience than black Americans. They were not brought here enslaved. They were not codified under Jim Crow. And most Asian Americans who came to this country came after the civil rights movement, because prior to the civil rights movement there were quotas on how many people of color could be allowed in the country. Asian Americans tend to come in on work visas and on education visas, meaning that they are coming in more educated and more resourced. They’re the most integrated group of racial minorities in the country. They’re the most likely to live in white neighborhoods and to attend middle-class white schools. So they’re just not facing the same disadvantages that black and Latinos are facing. But it’s a very convenient way to argue that what they’re doing is fundamentally about fairness and not about race.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting you say that. In our next piece, we’re going to be talking with Congressmember Jayapal about the new anti-immigration legislation that the Trump administration would like to put forward and support, and one of the arguments the extreme anti-immigrant adviser to President Trump, Stephen Miller, put forward yesterday in the White House press briefing was his concern for African Americans being—losing jobs because of Latinos and others coming into this country and stealing them, so championing the African-American community.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I mean, it would be great if they were championing the African-American communities in other ways—for instance, not attacking affirmative action, not attacking voting rights, not deciding to no longer investigate police departments that have been accused of violating the rights of black citizens. So, I think, clearly, they are using black Americans in this instance in the same way that the right is trying to use Asian Americans in affirmative action.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. We will link to your work, Nikole. Nikole Hannah-Jones, award-winning reporter covering racial justice and injustice at The New York Times Magazine.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Seattle. It is extremely hot there, record heat. We’re going to be speaking with the congressmember from that area, Pramila Jayapal, about the latest—the latest policies of the Trump administration, particularly put forward yesterday, supporting anti-immigrant legislation, the RAISE Act—which raises many questions. Stay with us.

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