According to an internal announcement, the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division will have its resources redirected toward investigating colleges' affirmative action policies.
The document, obtained by The New York Times, announces a call for lawyers to work on "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions."
Experts have said the project appears to target affirmative action admission policies that weigh a candidate's race as a factor in college admissions. The policies are designed to help minority students who statistically may not have the same economic advantages as white students have a better chance of acceptance, to make up for potential disadvantages. The policies are also a way for colleges to increase diversity on their campus.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there are educational benefits to having a diverse campus, and said that schools may use race as one part of their admission systems, but racial quotas are not allowed.
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Kristen Clarke, the president of Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a liberal group, called the Justice Department's project "deeply disturbing."
Clarke said the project was "misaligned with the [civil rights] division's longstanding priorities," adding that the division was "created and launched to deal with the unique problem of discrimination faced by our nation's most oppressed minority groups."
"It would be a dog whistle that could invite a lot of chaos and unnecessarily create hysteria among colleges and universities who may fear that the government may come down on them for their efforts to maintain diversity on their campuses," said Clarke of the project.
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Critics of affirmative action policies believe economic or racial factors should not come into the decision of whether to admit a college applicant, according to The Washington Post.
President of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, Roger Clegg, said the policies were discriminatory against whites, and that the Justice Department's new project was "long overdue."
"The civil rights laws were deliberately written to protect everyone from discrimination, and it is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian-Americans are as well," said Clegg.
Clegg said the Justice Department could look at dropout rates and test scores for students of different races, to see if universities were focusing too much on race in their admissions processes.
A 2015 Gallup poll found that women and minorities tended to support affirmative action more than white men. The same poll also found that all of those polled favored affirmative action for women more than they did for racial minorities.
In another Gallup poll in 2016, more of those polled said whether the applicant's parent was an alumnus of the school should be a factor in an admission decision, at 46 percent, than those who said race should be a factor, at 36 percent.