Despite the complexity of the issues at stake, the debate over affirmative action in America is rarely as nuanced as it ought to be. Treating affirmative action as a practice that either hurts or helps an entire racial group, for instance, prevents productive conversations about its role in college admissions.
The limitations of such interpretations of affirmative action are, at times, revealing. Consider the Justice Department’s plans to crack down on “intentional race-based discrimination” in college admissions, an initiative made public by The New York Times this week, based on an internal Justice Department memo obtained by the newspaper. The memo isn’t explicit about whom it considers victims of such discrimination, but the Times—and lots of outlets that subsequently reported on the revelation—didn’t hesitate to read between the lines. The department wants to sue institutions that discriminate against white applicants, wrote the Times in its lead. Press releases from progressive advocacy groups decried what they described as another Trump administration campaign to protect white Americans.
But the Justice Department rebuffed the Times for its characterization of the memo. The department clarified that the document simply called for volunteers to investigate the existing claims against Harvard by a coalition of 64 Asian American groups that the Obama-era DOJ failed to resolve.
Proponents of the newly revealed effort, too, were quick to push back against the Times’s line of reasoning, emphasizing that the debate over such admissions policies isn’t one that pits whites against people of color. The de facto accusations of racism, they argue, disregard an entire demographic that’s perhaps most disadvantaged by those policies: Asian Americans.
There’s plenty of data to underscore concerns that Asian Americans are unduly affected by affirmative action. But quantifying the effects of such policies is notoriously thorny. That’s true more broadly, as well, in part because of how the issue has been litigated.